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Senate ESEA Debate May Reignite Scuffle on Bullying Protections for LGBT Students

Expect a potential schoolyard scuffle when the U.S. Senate begins debating dueling amendments to address bullying as part of considering the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization.

During the Senate education committee markup, three members offered varying amendments that sought to protect students from bullying, including students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), eliciting the most contentious debate in an otherwise smooth markup process.

An amendment from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., co-author of the ESEA bill and chairman of the committee, would allow states and school districts to use federal funds to implement or improve bullying-prevention policies, including for LGBT students. A similar amendment from Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., meanwhile, would require states that receive federal funding to establish bullying prevention policies, including for LGBT students.

And a third amendment from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., would enact the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would create a comprehensive federal prohibition against discrimination and bullying in public schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

All three amendments are expected to be offered during the ongoing Senate floor debate on the ESEA reauthorization, which began Tuesday.

During the markup, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, struck at the heart of the debate over Alexander's and Casey's amendments:

"I think you're both right," she said. "I want something that truly has teeth, and I think what Casey has done would help better define [the problem] ... But I agree with Alexander that I don't want D.C. telling a village in remote Alaska what that definition of bullying is."

"I think it's important that we acknowledge that so much of the bullying atmosphere coming at kids today is directed at kids with LGBT status," Murkowski continued. "But it's too general in one approach and too prescriptive in another."

(You can read more about the committee markup debate here.)

They both withdrew their amendments, but notably, Casey had the support of Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., which would have given him enough votes for his amendment to be adopted to the underlying bill.

While it's unclear how the three amendments will play out on the Senate floor, the debate will be especially interesting coming on the heels of the recent Supreme Court ruling backing the rights to same-sex marriage. In recent months, Republican members of Congress have shown more interest in LGBT issues, even supporting same-sex benefits during the budget debate this past spring.

Notably, the forthcoming bullying debate will prompt the first votes on LGBT issues since the Supreme Court ruling.

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