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Safety and Justice for All Americans
December 11th, 2012 Posted by

The following post appears courtesy of Roy L. Austin Jr.,  the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice

Last week, I attended the Ninth Anniversary of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C., and delivered remarks about the Obama Administration’s commitment to safety and justice for all Americans, including transgender Americans.

LGBT equality has been a top priority of the Obama Administration and Attorney General Eric Holder. As President Barack Obama said in October 2011:

“Every single American – gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender – every single American deserves to be treated equally in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of our society. It’s a pretty simple proposition.”

The Justice Department has a number of tools at our disposal to meet this important goal. In the Civil Rights Division, one way we do this is by ensuring that law enforcement officials treat everyone equally and are not violating the constitutional rights of the people they serve. The vast majority of police departments around the country work tirelessly to protect the civil and constitutional rights of the communities they serve. But when systematic problems emerge in a police department, the Civil Rights Division uses its statutory authority to hold them accountable, and to galvanize and institutionalize meaningful reform. 

For example, after an investigation of the New Orleans Police Department, the Division found that, among other things, police officers were discriminating against and disproportionately punishing transgender individuals. To address these concerns, the police department will now be specifically trained on working with transgender individuals as part of an agreement we reached with the city of New Orleans in July. Puerto Rico has similar issues with violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals. We are working with the Puerto Rico Police Department to ensure better investigation of these crimes and to ensure that the police department treats victims and witnesses with respect.

We also investigate, address, and work to prevent hate crimes, including those targeting the LGBT community. The Justice Department enforces the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law in October 2009.  To date, we have brought 16 cases and charged 40 defendants under the Shepard-Byrd Act in 11 different states across the country. Thirty-six of those defendants have been convicted on a hate crime or a serious hate crime related charge, and five of these cases have involved the convictions of persons who physically attacked others due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Another significant accomplishment to come from the Shepard-Byrd Act has been the Department’s outreach. Since the enactment of Shepard-Byrd, the Department has provided hate crimes training to thousands of law enforcement officers and community activists around the country. We have made it clear what people should do when they believe that they have been a victim of or witness to a hate crime. And we have worked with law enforcement on the ways to properly investigate hate crimes. Among other things, this education spreads the message that our transgender community is a vital part of the American community and must be treated with respect. 

Finally, we have led efforts to address the bullying and harassment that touches the lives of countless kids, their families, and their communities every school year. As we’ve seen all too clearly – and as many of us know from our own experience – bullying can have a devastating, and potentially lifelong, impact. Nearly one in three middle and high school students report being bullied, and over half of our children report that they witness bullying in school. For gender non-conforming and transgender students, it can be much worse.

The Administration takes this issue very seriously. Last year at the White House, the President and the First Lady held a conference on bullying and harassment in schools. The President has made clear that he doesn’t accept the idea that bullying is just part of growing up; rather, every child has a right to receive an education without fearing for their safety. 

The Civil Rights Division is using every tool available to us to respond. We protect the rights of students who are being harassed because of their race, national origin, religion, disability, or sex – including if they are being harassed because they don’t act how their peers think a boy or girl is supposed to act.  Through this work we are seeing that two communities face a disproportionate amount of bullying and harassment in schools: Muslim students, and LGBT students.  And not only members of these communities—but also those who are perceived to belong to these communities—are at increased risk of being bullied. 

Together with our federal partners like the Department of Education, we are exploring ways to hold schools accountable, and to stop harassment and bullying before it starts. This includes efforts in Tehachapi, California, where 13-year-old Seth Walsh, who was openly gay, took his own life after suffering verbal, physical and sexual harassment in school for over two years. Although the settlement we reached with the school district comes too late to help Seth, it hopefully will prevent harassment and bullying from recurring and create a more positive environment for all students in his district, as well as send a message nationwide.

All of these actions and policies are certainly promising steps in the right direction, but we also recognize there is still much work to be done. The Justice Department remains committed to equality under the law and will continue to be central to that effort over the years to come.

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