Naked City

Dignity in the Classroom

Discrimination and harassment are rarely, if ever, cited among the reasons students drop out of school, but three lawmakers agree those are factors that must be reversed in the state's public education system.

A House bill filed last week – the Dignity for All Students Act (HB 376) – seeks to do just that by prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, and sexual orientation. The legislation is also designed to circumvent potential hostility growing out of new health textbooks that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The Texas Board of Education ordered the new language be added, despite widespread opposition from students, parents, teachers, and public education advocates.

"When students are discriminated against in school and the school does nothing about it, we are failing them in a very fundamental way," said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, a co-sponsor of the bill with Reps. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas.

Randall Ellis, executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, cited studies showing that students subjected to discrimination or harassment are more likely to have a high absentee rate, or quit school altogether. Some students, like Ben Brownlee, a transgendered Rockdale High School student, suffer so much abuse that they seek a more drastic way out. Brownlee came home from school one day in the fall of 2003 and committed suicide.

Heterosexual students who are supportive of their gay classmates may also be subjected to displays of intolerance, ranging from taunts to eye-rolling expressions, say LBJ High School students Christina Gauvain and April Vincent. The two 17-year-olds were among members of Austin Out Youth visiting the Capitol last week to support the dignity bill. Vincent says she thrives on diversity and has always considered herself a little different from other students. "That's what I like about Out Youth," Vincent said with a laugh, "they're more accepting of quirky behavior."

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