September was a bleak month that demonstrated the deadly toll anti-gay bullying can take on young lives. Four young men in four different states committed suicide after being harassed by classmates because they were gay or were perceived to be gay.

In Texas, 13-year-old Asher Brown shot himself after enduring relentless taunting at his middle school. In California, 13-year-old Seth Walsh hanged himself when he couldn’t take the bullying any longer–as did Billy Lucas, 15, in Indiana. And 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student, jumped off a bridge after his roommate secretly broadcast online an intimate encounter between Clementi and another man.

These suicides are a devastating reminder that anti-gay bullying is one of the most prevalent and deadly forms of bullying in schools.

National surveys show that as many as nine out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) students experienced harassment in the past year–a rate three times higher than students in general. These adolescents are also up to four times as likely to be depressed and think about or attempt suicide as their straight peers. In Minnesota, the Anoka-Hennepin school district is a sad testament to this finding. At least four LGBT students there have committed suicide in the past year alone.

But this isn’t just a “gay issue.” Anti-gay bullying is frequently directed at straight students who are perceived as gay.

Unfortunately, some organizations on the religious right are pushing schools to ignore this crisis. These groups believe taking specific steps to protect a child from a school day filled with taunts of “fag” and “homo”–or even violent attacks–is an endorsement of the so-called “homosexual agenda.”

It’s not. It’s about ensuring every child is safe at school.

This is why school districts need strong anti-bullying policies that specifically ban anti-gay bullying. Research consistently shows that students report less bullying at schools with policies that specify certain types of bullying compared to schools with policies that don’t. It sends a clear message that the school’s anti-bullying policy covers all students.

This approach has been endorsed by the National Education Association, the National PTA, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals–hardly a bunch of radical organizations.

Contrary to what some critics say, addressing anti-gay bullying doesn’t grant LGBT students special rights any more than specifically banning bullying based on race, disability or religion gives students special privileges. It simply ensures that LGBT students receive equal rights.

School officials should know they can be held liable for not stopping anti-gay bullying. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s latest classroom documentary, Bullied, chronicles the story of a student who stood up to his anti-gay tormentors and filed a federal lawsuit against his school district and school officials in Wisconsin. It led to a landmark federal court decision holding school officials accountable.

Despite that ruling, we’re facing a crisis that schools can’t ignore. It may be tempting for school officials to remain neutral, but as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

All school districts should adopt anti-bullying policies that specifically protect LGBT students. Until they do, thousands of children will continue to suffer violence and humiliation. This isn’t about changing anyone’s beliefs or behavior. It’s about recognizing that every child deserves a safe learning environment.

Maureen Costello is the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project, which produces and distributes anti-bias resources, free of charge, to educators nationwide.

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