Sen. Al Franken said he plans to press the full Senate on Tuesday to vote on legislation that would ban LGBT discrimination at public schools and require campus officials to intervene when an LGBT student is being bullied.
The Minnesota Democrat said in an interview with BuzzFeed News that Senate leaders have indicated his amendment will go before the full chamber after years of unsuccessful attempts.
Forty co-sponsors had signed on to the amendment as of Monday, including one Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Franken said. He expects the Senate will approve his legislation with more Republican votes. Still, Franken said he believes the vote will be "very close."
Bullying of LGBT students is “becoming an epidemic," he said, citing three boys who committed suicide after they were being harassed by classmates who believed they were gay. “You can’t learn if you are afraid," he added.
"Kids have these protections for race, national origin, gender and disability," Franken said. "We want to extend to LGBT kids the same right that other kids have."
Taking his legislation to a floor vote represents a new strategy for the Democratic senator, who has toiled in committee since 2010 to advance nearly identical legislation, called the Student Nondiscrimination Act, or SENDA. But that bill never got an up-or-down vote in the full Senate.
This time, Franken is attempting to attach his legislation as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which would replace expired rules under No Child Left Behind.
Some of Franken’s optimism this time around is based on the reaction to a proposed bill that would have banned workplace discrimination against LGBT adults, which got 64 votes in the Senate in 2013. While the bill did not ultimately become law, he contends the show of support fares well for the student bill.
“To me, this is a lower bar — that we will provide these [nondiscrimination] rights to children," Franken said.
The senator believes his legislation would settle questions about which restrooms transgender students can use at schools, an issue that has led to public disputes and lawsuits across the U.S. Transgender students under Franken's policy would be able use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity “without harassment," he said.
Although several communities have fought over restroom issues in schools — resulting in a federal case in Virginia — Franken said that once nondiscrimination laws were approved in other states, the matter “is dealt with. It isn’t an issue.”
Eighteen states currently have LGBT anti-bullying laws for schools, according to GLSEN, an LGBT education advocacy group. A total of 13 states have laws banning LGBT discrimination in schools.
Franken’s amendment would expand those protections across the U.S. If schools fail to comply, Franken said, students and their families would have rights to sue their school districts for relief.
Franken's legislation for LGBT students is modeled largely after a 1972 law, referred to as Title IX, that bans discrimination based on sex in education facilities that receive federal money. In recent years, the Obama administration has repeatedly interpreted Title IX to also protect transgender students. Franken’s legislation would make that interpretation explicit in federal law, removing ambiguities for school districts.
Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado, has offered companion legislation in the House, where it has also faced challenges. However, Franken said it was critical to keep pushing the LGBT protections.
"I believe it is a responsibility not just as senators, but as adults to protect children," he said.