By Nurit L. Shein

Less than a month into the new school year, at least six students nationwide have taken their own lives as a result of antigay bullying. And this isn't just an issue for gay and lesbian kids.

Over the past year, there have been plenty of headlines about violent bullying at schools in Philadelphia and around the country. A U.S. Department of Education study found that bullying and harassment affect nearly one in every three American schoolchildren in the sixth through 10th grades. Another study estimated that 60,000 American students skip school each day because they fear being bullied.

Simply put, bullying and harassment deny students access to education. Studies confirm that victims of bullying tend to disengage from school and suffer psychologically, academically, and physically, even into adulthood. The bullies themselves don't tend to fare much better as adults: They have higher rates of incarceration and more difficulty maintaining steady work and relationships.

My organization, Mazzoni Center, has been working with the Philadelphia School District since 1998 to create safer, more welcoming, more inclusive environments for young people, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths, who are by far the most frequently targeted for bullying.

When it comes to effective anti-bullying strategies, teachers and other school employees are hungry for this information. They see the impact of bullying on their students and are looking for ways to keep them safe. They need explicit guidance from school and district administrators.

In August, Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and 10 cosponsors introduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which is designed to help schools and districts prevent bullying and harassment. The legislation has also been introduced in the House by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D., Calif.) and has more than 100 cosponsors from both parties. It also has broad support among educators and civil-rights organizations.

The legislation would require schools and districts receiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including such conduct based on a student's race, national origin, religion, disability, gender, or sexual orientation. It would ensure that schools and districts focus on effective prevention programs and require that states report data on bullying and harassment to the U.S. Department of Education.

Since he introduced the bill, Casey has been attacked by organizations such as Focus on the Family that claim the legislation is "antifamily" or seeks to "promote" homosexuality among children. To the contrary, this bill is designed to protect all students from bullying and harassment in school. Such misinformation does a disservice to our kids, and it reflects the same kind of intolerance and divisiveness that leads to bullying and physical violence in schools and playgrounds across the country every day.

No student should be made to feel unsafe or unwelcome in school because of any aspect of his or her identity. All students deserve school environments in which they are respected, protected, and valued, free of bullying and hatred. That is, after all, the purpose of public schools - to give everyone access to education.

To achieve that purpose and be truly safe, schools must have policies in place to protect their students. Their staffs should be trained in how and why to implement those policies, and their students and families should be made aware of them. The only way to ensure that this happens in all our schools is to make it a priority through constant discourse, meaningful assessments of school climate, and legislation like the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

Nurit L. Shein is the executive director of Mazzoni Center, a Philadelphia-based organization providing services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. She can be reached at nshein@mazzonicenter.org.