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Districts lag in spelling out protection

Eighteen months after Colorado lawmakers voted to require schools to pass anti-bullying policies that specifically protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students – and four years after passage of a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation – fewer than a third of Colorado’s 178 school districts appear to have adopted policies that specifically reflect both.

Those are the findings of a survey completed over the summer by One Colorado Education Fund, a statewide organization advocating for equal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“It’s great that the legislature took this first step in enacting a law to protect young people from bullying and harassment,” said Brad Clark, executive director of One Colorado Education Fund. “But it’s disappointing that still more than 60 percent of school districts haven’t done what they need to do to address this.”

The survey obtained results from 148 Colorado school districts. All those not responding were small, remote districts. Of those who did respond:

  • 50 have fully updated all their anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies specifically to include sexual orientation
  • 48 have done nothing to update their policies
  • 50 have updated some, but not all, of their policies or have failed to specifically enumerate the groups of students granted special protection

Nearly all of the districts that have failed to update their policies are small, rural districts.

But One Colorado found that four of the state’s 10 largest districts – Jefferson County, Denver, Aurora and Douglas County – have updated their policies but have failed to include the suggested model language about sexual orientation.

A question of semantics

Denver Public Schools officials say they believe the district’s anti-bullying policy does comply with state law, but they’re in the process of updating all district policies to ensure sexual orientation is always included among protected classes listed.

“Our updated policy is going to the board of education for first review next month. The proposed language will include sexual orientation, gender identity and transgender status,” said DPS spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong.

Aurora Public Schools officials say they revised their policies in June to reflect changes to the law, but did not feel it was necessary to spell out just which groups are included.

“Because the bullying policy covers all students, it necessarily includes all protected classes … and is therefore compliant with statute,” said spokeswoman Paula Hans.

The Douglas County School District includes sexual orientation among the protected classes in its discrimination and harassment policies, and bullying is included in its definition of activities that can constitute harassment. It even spells out exactly what harassment based on sexual orientation might include. However, the bullying policy itself does not mention sexual orientation, but says “any student.”

And in Jeffco Public Schools, the anti-bullying policy notes that it is prohibited “against any student for any reason,” including those “against whom federal and state laws prohibit discrimination.” Sexual orientation falls into those protected classes.

Advocate says language makes a difference

Clark insists he’s not splitting hairs when he takes school boards to task for not spelling out that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are included among protected groups.

“Having a comprehensive policy is one of the lead indicators of students reporting a sense of safety,” he said.

Surveys show that comprehensive policies that specifically include sexual orientation among the protected classes of students do seem to impact school culture for the better.

One national study found that 65.7 percent of students in schools with comprehensive policies heard remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” at school. That compares to 73.7 percent of students in schools with generic policies, and 74.1 percent in schools with no policy.

Colorado’s remaining six largest districts – Adams 12 Five Star, Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, Colorado Springs, Poudre and Mesa County – do have fully inclusive policies in both areas. The Mesa County board adopted its revised policy last week.

Boulder Valley and Colorado Springs, in fact, have gone beyond state requirements and include even stricter language about harassment or bullying based on “gender identity” or “gender expression.”

More districts will be revising policies

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, says she’s not making excuses for the laggard districts, but she believes many of them are in the process of revising their policies. She said she expects more will be updated in coming months as time permits.

By the numbers

  • One national study found that 65.7 percent of students in schools with comprehensive policies specifically including sexual orientation among protected classes heard remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” at school.
  • That compares to 73.7 percent of students in schools with generic policies, and 74.1 percent in schools with no policy.

Bullying reports

  • Nationwide, 84.6 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report being verbally harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
  • Another 40.1 percent of such students report being physically harassed in the past year, and 18.8 percent report being assaulted.

Source: GLSEN School Climate Survey

“Boards are pretty inundated with the needs to create policies,” she said. “And if they don’t have a ‘policy person,’ if it’s the superintendent responsible for drafting the updated policies, that superintendent may be more worried about getting kids picked up, getting teachers in the classroom and getting school underway than about updating their bullying policy.”

She said CASB, which has model policies available for districts to consider and adapt to their own needs, has begun to get more calls from districts in the process of revising their bullying and harassment policies to include the language of sexual orientation. But there’s still some confusion about changes in the law.

“Remember the role of the school board,” Urschel said. “They’re elected to reflect the values of a community, and there are communities who will say their first responsibility is to keep all kids safe. They’ll say a kid is a kid, so why must they list different classes of kids? But (state law) does delineate those classes.”

House Bill 1254, passed in 2011, updated the state’s bullying definition to include any verbal, physical or electronic act or gesture intended to coerce, intimidate or cause harm to a student for any reason, including academic performance or “against whom federal and state laws prohibit discrimination.”

Those laws spell out protected classes of people, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, race, creed, color, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, ancestry or need for special education services. It made Colorado one of 14 states to explicitly protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

The bill generated a fair amount of controversy last year, with critics complaining it was overreaching and that such policies were best left to local school districts to decide, without state interference.

In 2008, Senate Bill 200 expanded Colorado’s anti-discrimination law to cover sexual orientation. It, too, was a hot-button topic at the time.

School officials generally accept the need to act

Urschel said that despite the past controversies, she’s feeling no pushback now from school districts. Rather, it’s just a question of priorities:

“Most say they’ve got their policies, and they agree they need to tweak them, but they’ve got other things they have to take care of first. Funding is at the top of the priority heap. But we don’t have people saying they just won’t do it.”

“Most (school districts) say they’ve got their policies, and they agree they need to tweak them, but they’ve got other things they have to take care of first … But we don’t have people saying they just won’t do it.”
— Jane Urschel, CASBClark, too, says there’s been no resistance to adopting the sexual orientation language, just inertia.

“At their core, I believe that people who are in education have the best interests of students at heart, and want to ensure that kids aren’t beaten up or harassed. No one wants to see that,” he said. “And what we’ve heard is that districts really are taking at look at their policies.”

He praised CASB, as well as the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Education Association, for their ongoing assistance in encouraging districts to revise their policies.

Nationwide, 84.6 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report being verbally harassed, 40.1 percent physically harassed, and 18.8 percent assaulted in the past year because of their sexual orientation. That doesn’t include the numbers of “straight” young people who may be teased or harassed because of mistaken assumptions about their sexual orientation.

‘Gender expression’ as a protected class

Holy Spady, 16, a junior at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, said she’s grateful for the comprehensive policies in her district, which not only specify sexual orientation but also “gender identity.”

“I’ve seen a decrease in the amount of bullying because there’s greater knowledge about gender identity and expression. More people know about it than ever before, and one of the main reasons is because it’s in the anti-bullying policy.
— Holy Spady, 16“There are people who identify as ‘gender queer’ or transgender, and people have questions about it,” she said. “People don’t always know off the bat what that is. Before now, there was no vocabulary to define and express their concerns. This creates a sense of empowerment. It gives them the vocabulary to pinpoint a problem and solve it.”

Often, such issues boil down to simply using the proper pronoun, “he” or “she,” to refer to someone whose gender may not be immediately apparent to observers, Spady said.

“Honestly, I’ve seen a decrease in the amount of bullying because there’s greater knowledge about gender identity and expression,” she said. “More people know about it than ever before, and one of the main reasons is because it’s in the anti-bullying policy.

“Now people know what to call it. The bullying regresses because of lot of bullying is just based on ignorance. The more familiar it becomes to you, the less reason you have to criticize it.”

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