Knox County school board should simply leave its bullying and harassment policies alone. Otherwise, it can expect a replay of the September meeting in October as concerned parents and community activists storm the board to oppose weakening its protections.
It’s hard to identify the impetus for change, except to note that Gary Dupler, an attorney on Law Director Bud Armstrong’s staff who advises the school board, wants local policy to conform to state law.
Dupler said removing the words “actual or perceived gender” and “sexual orientation” from the list of legally protected categories and replacing them with the word “sex” will align the policy language with federal and state law, which doesn’t mention gender or sexual orientation.
The August and September board discussions applied only to the employment policy (G 220), but Dupler said that they should consider the student policy (J 210) as well, because the language is very similar in both.
The student policy, which was adopted in 2005 and sponsored by former board member Indya Kicannon, defines harassment, intimidation or bullying as “any gesture, written, verbal, physical or psychological act that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function or on a school bus and that: 1) is motivated by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability; or 2) by any other distinguishing characteristic…”
This policy was extended to teachers in 2012.
At the board’s Sept. 11 meeting, multiple complaints prompted Jennifer Owen to ask that the proposed changes be sent back to policy review, and when they were discussed at the committee’s Sept. 20 meeting, Owen argued that community objections should be honored. She asked Dupler what it would hurt to insert the word “sex” and leave the two categories in question intact.
Dupler responded that leaving “actual or perceived gender and sexual orientation” would make defending cases more difficult, and Owen’s colleagues sounded like they were ready to endorse his position when they vote on the two policies in October.
Dupler’s legal analysis misses the point, said Crystal Ann, mother of a 7-year-old transgender daughter. “That is a very flawed argument,” she said. “Everyone deserves to be safe at school, and the reality is these kids are not safe at school. They’re harassed, they’re assaulted. … We should be strengthening our anti-harassment policies.”
If the school board majority wants to weaken protections for certain teachers and students, they should say that and let the vote reflect their position. Do not hide behind legal advice that is timid or even craven.
Bullying and harassment are wrong and must not be tolerated in our public schools. To weaken policy protections takes us in the wrong direction.