The following official remarks were released by Attorney General Eric Holder at the White House LGBT Conference on Safe Schools & Communities on Tuesday, March 20, 2012.
Thank you, Dr. [Alejandro] del Carmen, for your kind words – and for welcoming me to this beautiful campus. I also want to thank President [James] Spaniolo – and the entire University of Texas community – for hosting this important conference.
It is a pleasure to be here in Arlington this morning, and a privilege to join so many law enforcement officials, educators, nonprofit and religious organizations, community groups, and Administration leaders – including representatives from the Departments of Justice and Education, and my good friend, Valerie Jarrett – in discussing the remarkable work that’s being done to ensure the safety of our schools and communities – and to develop strategies for carrying these efforts into the future.
Today’s conference marks the third in a series of regional events – hosted by the White House, and sponsored by federal agencies – that have helped shine a light on some of the unique challenges that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals currently face – from specific health concerns, to an increased risk of homelessness.
Today, as we focus on ways to protect our fellow citizens – and, especially, our students – from discrimination and hate-fueled violence, I’m grateful to be joined by several key leaders in this work, including U.S. Attorney Sarah Saldana, of the Northern District of Texas; and Judy Shepard – a courageous advocate who has turned her family’s tragedy into a national call to action.
Because of advocates like Judy – and the many allies and community leaders in this room – when it comes to protecting the rights and interests of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, we’ve established a record of progress that we can all be proud of. And we’ve created a sense of momentum that, today, we stand poised to build upon.
This morning, I’m proud to join you in affirming a simple truth, and renewing this Administration’s commitment – as well as my own – to an essential idea: that no one deserves to be bullied, harassed, or victimized because of who they are, how they worship, or who they love.
Fortunately, in this country, equal opportunity – and, in particular, equal justice under law – are anything but novel concepts. They are written into our founding documents, etched into our collective past, and woven throughout American history. Over the centuries, they have led patriots, pioneers, and visionaries not just to dream of a more perfect union, but to help make it a reality. As a result – especially in recent decades – we’ve made historic strides in the long march toward justice and equal opportunity for all citizens. And I am proud to say that our nation’s Department of Justice has never been more committed to advancing this work.
Nowhere is this commitment stronger than in the ongoing efforts of our Civil Rights Division. For over half a century, the Division has fought to expand opportunity and access, to safeguard the fundamental infrastructure of our democracy, and to protect the most vulnerable members of our society. Since the Division was created – in 1957 – preventing, investigating and prosecuting hate-fueled crimes and violence has been at the very heart of its mission. And, since the beginning of this Administration, we’ve taken this work to a new level.
In fact, over the last fiscal year, the Justice Department set new records in the number of hate crimes cases filed and the number of defendants charged and convicted of these crimes. And we worked tirelessly to enforce the landmark Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act – a historic measure which President Obama signed into law in 2009. Many of us fought for years to get this bill to the President’s desk. And few have worked harder or advocated more effectively than Judy Shepard, and her husband Dennis.
More than a decade ago, when I served as Deputy Attorney General, I testified in support of this critical legislation – and I made sure that one of my first trips to Capitol Hill as Attorney General was to support its passage. This legislation has proved to be a powerful tool. It provides federal prosecutors with new resources and authorities to seek justice on behalf of all those who are victimized on the basis of their race, ethnicity, , religion, national origin – and, for the first time ever – their sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Since it was enacted, the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section has worked closely with the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit and U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the country – including here in Texas – to ensure the smooth implementation of this important law. We’re collaborating with federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to ensure clear understanding of its provisions. And we’ve trained thousands of law enforcement officers and community stakeholders – including many who attended a conference right here in Arlington last November.
Already, these efforts have yielded significant results. Seven cases have been indicted under Shepard-Byrd, 24 defendants have been charged, and 8 have been convicted. As we speak, Justice Department investigators are examining a number of open matters under every part of the new law – including the provisions protecting those victimized because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Regrettably, these open matters include the incident last week in Northeast Dallas, where two gay men were attacked with baseball bats. When incidents like this occur, we want to hear about them. And we will do everything in our power to ensure that justice is served.
But the full measure of our success cannot be taken from the number of federal prosecutions alone. We must also consider the robust cooperation that’s taking place between federal, state and local authorities – including in cases where defendants have been prosecuted under state and local hate crimes statutes.
For example, Justice Department officials closely monitored the recent prosecution of a defendant from Shreveport, Louisiana, who used a pool cue to attack a gay man in a local club –shouting anti-gay threats just before the attack took place. It turned out that the state penalties provided for such offenses were more than double what federal statutes would have allowed. And, as a result – after the defendant pled guilty to aggravated assault and a hate crime under Louisiana state law – he was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Regardless of whether we use state or federal laws to obtain tough sentences like this one, there’s no doubt that rigorous enforcement will help to safeguard the rights of the LGBT community, to protect individuals from violence and intimidation, and to achieve justice for the victims of these despicable acts. But – although hate crimes prosecutions are essential – they are only one part of the Administration’s broad strategy of community engagement and empowerment.
That’s why the Department is working – in close cooperation with our state and local partners – to help prevent these crimes before they occur, and to encourage greater reporting when they do. It’s why we’ve joined forces with other federal agencies, like the Department of Education, to intervene in communities and school systems where discrimination, bullying, and harassment have been reported. And it’s why we’re reaching out to our nation’s young people through educational programs that teach tolerance and understanding.
At the center of this comprehensive approach is the work of the Community Relations Service – or CRS – a component of the Justice Department that helps government leaders, community groups, and public and private organizations to develop mediation and conciliation services in response to hate crimes. CRS never imposes solutions to local problems – and it’s not their job to investigate, prosecute, or assign blame. But – when they receive requests from students, school officials, or law enforcement officers – they work closely and confidentially with local stakeholders to address conflict, foster respect, and build safe and productive environments for LGBT students and others who report concerns.
In CRS, and across the entire Justice Department, we are committed to using every tool in our arsenal – and every strategy at our disposal – to foster healthy learning environments for our nation’s young people.
In the Civil Rights Division, these tools include critical enforcement mechanisms – as in the case of an openly gay California middle school student named Seth Walsh, whose mother found him unconscious and barely clinging to life one day in September 2010.
Seth hanged himself from a tree in the family’s backyard after suffering verbal, physical, and sexual harassment at school for more than two school years. A subsequent investigation by the Departments of Justice and Education found that his peers had targeted him because he did not conform to gender stereotypes. The investigation found that Seth was physically threatened and verbally harassed on a near daily basis. He was mocked for wearing clothing that was not sufficiently masculine, told that he should “get surgery” to become a female, called “sissy” and “girl,” and referred to as the “girlfriend” of other male students. Although the local school district had been notified of the harassment numerous times, the district failed to adequately investigate or respond, and chose to simply look the other way.
After more than a week on life support, Seth Walsh was declared brain dead, and passed away surrounded by his family. He was just 13 years old.
Our investigation determined that the school district’s failure to address and prevent this kind of harassment violates Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Last summer, the Departments of Justice and Education reached a settlement with the school district, requiring it to take a variety of steps – including revising its policies; providing mandatory training for all students, administrators, teachers, counselors, and other staff; and implementing ways to track and respond to harassment – to ensure that such behavior doesn’t happen again.
Of course, there are no steps we can take to undo the suffering that drove Seth Walsh to take his own life. And there are no words that can erase the shattering grief that followed his suicide. But I believe we owe it to Seth and other students like him to respond to such tragedies not just with shock and outrage – but with resolve. We have an obligation to protect young people who are targeted just because they’re perceived as “different” – and to make sure they know that we’re working with schools and communities to address bigotry before it becomes fuel for violence. That those who have been targeted by their classmates are not alone. That we will not stand for bullying or harassment in any form. And that – as so many, from celebrities like Lady Gaga, to elected officials, including President Obama, have already said – it gets better.
This is more than just a slogan for a popular public awareness campaign. It’s a commitment – one we’re backing up with robust action. For example, exactly two weeks ago – in Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota’s largest school district – the Departments of Justice and Education, six courageous student plaintiffs, and district officials came together to resolve harassment allegations and lay out a blueprint for sustainable reform. The consent decree they agreed upon is designed to provide immediate help to students who feel unsafe or afraid in all of the district’s schools. And it’s my hope that this successful outcome – arising from the willing engagement of every party involved – can serve as a model for other school systems that struggle to address harassment and build nurturing environments for their students.
I’d like to thank all of the investigators and attorneys who were involved – especially those who have joined us here today – for their excellent work on this case. But I also want to note that – despite the progress that these efforts represent – as far as the Justice Department, and the entire Administration, is concerned, they are only the beginning.
To ensure our continued progress, as Valerie just stated, the Administration strongly supports the goals of the Student Non-Discrimination Act. And for individuals and communities in need of help, there are a range of Justice Department components currently working to provide assistance and direct resources so that our students are protected – and able to learn without fear of discrimination, harassment, and bullying.
Studies being conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Institute of Justice will help shed light on victimization in the LGBT community and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system’s response. LGBT-focused training programs and grants administered by the Office for Victims of Crime and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention have already supported outreach campaigns, victim service providers, and survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – or COPS – is currently offering resources to help prevent cyber bullying, foster trust between at-risk young people and law enforcement officials, and bring a wide variety of partners together to improve disciplinary practices in school systems. The Office on Violence Against Women is funding important work being done in our schools to prevent and combat dating violence that includes same-sex relationships. And, as many of you know, the Department of Justice fully supports the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act – and we are pleased that the bill proposed by Senator Leahy explicitly includes LGBT individuals.
Although we can all be proud that our nation is on a trajectory of progress, we must also be ready to seize the moment before us. Today presents an important opportunity for each person in this room to rededicate ourselves to our common cause – of insisting that this country lives up to its highest ideals of fairness and equal opportunity.
In the months and years to come, let us strive to reinforce and quicken the momentum we’ve created. Let us build upon our hard-fought victories. And let us ensure that ‘equal justice under law’ is not simply an aspiration, but a guarantee for all time – and for all Americans.
In this work, I feel privileged to count you as partners. I am grateful for your efforts. And I look forward to the progress that we can – and must – achieve together.