by David Cohen

Constance McMillen, whose Mississippi school district canceled prom rather than allow her to bring her girlfriend, is joining 36 student and community leaders from 26 states at GLSEN’s Safe School Advocacy Summit from Saturday through Tuesday in Washington.
    The Safe Schools Advocacy Summit is the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s annual conference to train student and community leaders how to advocate through policy and community-based work for safe schools for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
    “I’m excited to meet other student and community leaders from across the country who are working to address anti-LGBT bullying and discrimination in schools,” said Constance, who has received support from more than 350,000 Facebook users at a page set up by the ACLU. “GLSEN’s Safe Schools Advocacy Summit is a great opportunity to learn more about how I can use the platform I’ve been given to continue my work to make schools places where everyone can feel safe and free to be who they are.”
    Constance will meet Rep. Jared Polis, sponsor of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, on Saturday and share her story with fellow participants that night. She also will attend workshops Saturday and Sunday before heading back to Mississippi to prepare for a Monday hearing for a preliminary injunction to stop Itawamba County School District from canceling the prom and prohibiting Constance from attending with her girlfriend. Constance is being represented by the ACLU.
    The Safe Schools Advocacy Summit consists of three days of workshops and discussions to develop a deeper understanding of the legislative process and acquire skills to engage in effective school- and community-based organizing to address anti-LGBT bullying and discrimination in schools.
    On Tuesday, participants will meet with legislators and staffers to advocate for legislation that will help protect all students from bullying and harassment, such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.
    Also among the attendees is Dominique Walker, whose brother Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover took his life last April after enduring constant bulling at school, including anti-LGBT bullying despite the fact that he did not identify as gay. Walker has served as a GLSEN Ambassador this school year.
    “Sadly, Constance McMillen and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover are not alone in their experiences,” GLSEN Public Policy Director Shawn Gaylord said. “Anti-LGBT bullying, harassment and discrimination are pervasive problems in our schools, but we know that solutions exist that can lead to safer environments for all our students. Through the amazing work of student and community leaders like the ones attending the Safe Schools Advocacy Summit, we are optimistic that momentum is gaining in Washington to make sure that schools are safe and welcoming for all students.”
    The Safe Schools Improvement Act, which has 99 bi-partisan cosponsors, requires schools that receive Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act funding implement a comprehensive anti-bullying policy that enumerates categories often targeted by bullies, including race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression and others. It also requires states to include bullying and harassment data in their state-wide needs assessments reporting.
    The Student Nondiscrimination Act, which has 78 bi-partisan cosponsors, prohibits discrimination in schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
    Nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students (86.2%) experience harassment at school because of their sexual orientation, and 60.8% feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, according to GLSEN’s 2007 National School Climate Survey.
    The harassment clearly affects students’ ability to learn. A third of LGBT students (32.7%) missed a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe, five times higher than a national sample of all students.

    For more information about Constance’s case, visit http://www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/fulton-ms-prom-discrimination. For information on GLSEN’s research, educational resources, public policy advocacy, student organizing programs and educator training initiatives, visit www.glsen.org