Justice Department to increase bullying prosecutions

By Danny Robbins
Associated Press

ARLINGTON — The Justice Department is committed to combating bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and has already made strides in bringing more prosecutions in that area, Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday.

“I’m proud to say this Department of Justice has never been more committed to this (issue),” Holder said, touting the department’s efforts during a speech at a conference at the University of Texas at Arlington aimed at promoting safe schools and communities for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

About 400 law enforcement officials, educators, students and community leaders registered for the one-day conference sponsored by the White House and the U.S. departments of justice and education.

It was the third in a series of events the White House has sponsored to raise awareness of LGBT issues.

Holder recounted several successful criminal prosecutions under federal and state statutes in saying the Obama administration is stepping up efforts to make sure no one is harassed because of “who they love.”

In particular, Holder cited the effect of the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009.

The government has secured eight convictions under the law, which expands the definition of hate crimes to include those related to gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, he said.

The law was named for Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming college student who was tortured and murdered in 1998 because he was perceived as gay, and James Byrd Jr., the black man who was dragged and killed by white supremests in Jasper that year.

Holder also pointed to the government’s case against the school district in Tehachapi, Calif., which it says failed to stop the harassment that led to the 2010 suicide of a 13-year-old gay student, Seth Walsh.

In that case, a settlement requires the school district to take steps to prevent sexual and gender-based harassment.

“We have an obligation to protect young people who are targeted just because they are perceived as different,” Holder said.

Another speaker, senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, told the story of an Oklahoma high school student who stood up to harassment after she told people she was gay.

“Every day, bit by bit, she changes the world around her,” Jarrett said of the young woman, who was in the crowd.

Holder and Jarrett’s remarks followed panel discussions on making both schools and communities safer for LGBT individuals.

The panelists included federal prosecutors who have dealt directly with those issues as well as Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead, whose department came under fire in 2009 after a raid at a gay bar, the Rainbow Lounge, left a patron with a severe head injury.

Halstead drew applause when he said that 90 percent of the officers under his command now have advanced training in how to deal with hate crimes, which he said should be standard for all in law enforcement.

“June 28, 2009, is going to come your way at some point,” he said, referring to the date of the Fort Worth incident, which prompted widespread changes in his department as well as the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.