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Repeal of Anti-Bias Policy Is Sought in Des Moines

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Petition drives by opposing groups of parents and students have forced the Des Moines, Iowa, school board to revisit its policy that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

After the issue dominated the public-forum part of last week's school board meeting, the seven-member board postponed action until June 18.

A majority of its members seem opposed to demands from some parents that the board delete the sexual-orientation provision from the six-year-old policy, but several compromise proposals are being discussed.

"If this hadn't gotten so much press, the board never would have done anything," said board member Suzette Jensen. "There's no support for change."

However, at least one member, Harold Sandahl, favors a repeal.

Some board members who had not publicly declared a position on the repeal issue may have since been influenced by a ruling last month by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court, on a 6-3 vote, struck down an amendment to the Colorado constitution that would have prevented the state and local governments from enforcing laws or policies to protect the rights of homosexuals. (See Education Week, May 29, 1996.)

After the decision in Romer v. Evans, national education and gay-rights groups called for schools to adopt anti-discrimination policies.

One of the accusations against the Des Moines policy has been that it could provide protection for convicted pedophiles. In the Colorado ruling, however, the high court used a specific definition of sexual orientation-- "bisexual, homosexual, or heterosexual."

Compromise Language

Board members in Des Moines interpret that definition to mean that their own policy does not include pedophilia.

The Des Moines board is expected to take up compromise language to add exemptions to its anti-discrimination policy under the category of disability to make it clear that employment protections do not extend to such behaviors as pedophilia, transvestism, compulsive gambling, and pyromania.

Supporters say the exemptions, which are also found in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, would help protect students from teachers who could pose a threat.

Opponents argue that current laws and background checks already provide adequate protection against such threats.

"It's a slippery slope," said Alicia Claypool, head of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, an ecumenical political group that supports the current policy. "It would keep sexual orientation, but it could take away civil rights from others."

The board may consider a resolution that would outline how state and federal laws and its own hiring practices protect children.

"There is lots of discussion to find out how to protect the policy as it is, but find some way to expressly state that the district will not hire people who will put students at risk," said John R. Phoenix, the board president.

Petition Drives

The latest round of debate began in April, when the conservative Concerned Parents of Des Moines collected 1,000 signatures in one day on a petition calling for a repeal of the gay-rights language.

The group led successful efforts last year to block a plan to teach students about homosexuality. The group also sought to defeat then-school board member Jonathan Wilson, who is gay. Mr. Wilson lost in last fall's elections. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.

"Those words, sexual orientation, give them special rights that could be used to try and put homosexuality into the curriculum," said Bruce Tillotson, the chairman of Concerned Parents. "We've never said we wanted to discriminate."

Responding to the group's recent petition, two high school students formed Concerned Students of Des Moines and kicked off their own petition drive, which gathered 5,850 signatures.

"I thought it would be unjust and unfair" to repeal the provision, said co-founder Sarah Dirks, a senior at North High School. "I also thought it would hurt the quality of my teachers."

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