California high school student joins ACLU to advocate for H.R. 4530

VALLEJO — A new bill would directly impact the quality of life for LGBTQ teens in public school systems.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., introduced the bill — H.R. 4530: Student Nondiscrimination Act of 2010 — on Jan. 27.

The proposed legislation states its purpose “To end discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identify in public schools, and for other purposes.” It would provide the students and their families legal recourse against discriminatory treatment.

“All I ever wanted was to be able to go to school and just be myself. But I couldn’t do that when the people I was supposed to be learning from were judging me and telling me something was wrong with me. How was I supposed to learn when I was constantly scared?” – high school student, Rochelle Hamilton

The day after the bill was introduced, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a letter to the entire U.S. House of Representatives. The letter, signed by Michael W. Macleod-Ball, acting director, Washington Legislative Office, and Christopher E. Anders, senior legislative counsel, detailed the negative impact this type of discrimination has on our children and urged each member of Congress to co-sponsor the bill.

“On behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a non-partisan organization with more than a half million members, countless activists and supporters, and fifty-three affiliates nationwide, we urge you to co-sponsor H.R. 4530, the Student Non-Discrimination Act. This important and necessary legislation would establish a comprehensive federal prohibition against discrimination in public schools based on a student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and provides victims with meaningful and effective remedies modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

Discrimination against LGBT students in public schools across this country is an unacceptable daily reality. Every student deserves the opportunity to attend school and learn without the fear of being targeted for harassment and discrimination simply based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The ACLU’s own work advocating for equal protection for LGBT students is replete with examples of those who have suffered discriminatory treatment at the very hands of those tasked with providing them with an education and ensuring their safety within schools.”

The letter went on to outline specific examples, the first being the story of Rochelle Hamilton, who was relentlessly harassed by the faculty of her Vallejo, Calif., high school for being a lesbian.

Rochelle recently shared her story here in San Diego, at a conference to educate K-12 school counselors and educators about LGBTQI student issues. The conference was put on by the graduate students of SDSU’s School Counseling program, lead by Dr. Trish Hatch.

Rochelle’s speech at the conference was overwhelmingly received and especially poignant, as she explained her pain and deep despair during that period of her life.

“I was willing to give up my life for people who hated me,” she said.

In addition to Rochelle’s story, the letter also reviews the plight of other students, two boys in a relationship in Memphis, Tenn., and another California girl who was eventually forced to leave her school in Orange County.

All the students identified in the ACLU’s letter were continually harassed and even disciplined for their sexuality specifically by school faculty, which is most alarming. If teachers, counselors and other faculty members openly harass a student for their sexuality, it shows the other students on campus that bigotry is OK and even encouraged.

In Rochelle’s case, her family sued the school district and won, but she was also forced to leave the school and the experience has severely impacted her educational path. She fell far behind during those two whirlwind years and is working extra hard this year to make up credits, so that she can graduate as close to on-time as possible and begin the rest of her life.

Cheri Hamilton, Rochelle’s mother, has been a staunch advocate for her daughter ever since she came out to her at age 13. It was Cheri (pronounced Sha-ree) who had had enough and decided to take the school district to task. Although the ordeal was difficult on her daughter and the rest of the family, Cheri doesn’t regret it and isn’t looking back. Her Facebook page says “My Job Is To LOVE, GUIDE, AND PROVIDE…..and I AM LOUD, AND PROUD about IT…”

One thing she doesn’t want is apologies; she just wants change.

Cheri now accompanies Rochelle to speaking engagements around the state, and this new bill just might broaden the reach of those speaking engagements – to around the country.

This week, both the ACLU and Rep. Polis’ office contacted Cheri, specifically seeking Rochelle’s help – they’d like her to sign on as an advocate – to work on behalf of the bill and help get it passed.

In February, H.R. 4530 was referred to the subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness. So far, 76 other congressmembers have signed on as co-sponsors.

If Rochelle and Cheri can help it, a great deal more will do so soon. One thing is for certain; this bill won’t pass soon enough for kids like Rochelle.

Morgan M. Hurley is the Copy Editor for SDGLN. She can be reached at (877) 277-5446, ext 710 or at [email protected].

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