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Published in Print: May 17, 2000, as Mass. Stance on Anti-Gay Bias In Schools Stirring Debate

Mass. Stance on Anti-Gay Bias In Schools Stirring Debate

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Gay-rights advocates in Massachusetts are hailing new regulations protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment and discrimination in schools. But a gubernatorial commission is criticizing the state school board's decision to change language governing how homosexuals are to be portrayed in the school curriculum.

The board voted April 25 to implement rules that update the state's equal- educational-opportunity law, which was amended in 1993 to extend existing protections based on race, sex, religion, and national origin to include sexual orientation. In the seven years since the law was amended, state education officials have started a program to make schools safer for gay students and encouraged all schools to start so-called gay-straight alliances. But the state board had not formally adopted regulations implementing the law.

The new regulations call for schools to undertake "active efforts" to prevent discrimination, by training staff members and responding promptly to harassment when it occurs. School handbooks and codes of conduct are to be brought up to date to reflect the ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But it is a change of language in the regulations' curriculum section that is sparking debate.

Originally, the rules called for school officials to "counteract" any discriminatory stereotypes found in their curricula. When the board voted to implement the regulations, though, it dropped that language in favor of a requirement that schools "provide balance and context" for any such stereotypes. Long-standing regulations that directed schools to depict individuals of both sexes and from minority groups in "a broad variety of positive roles" were also removed when the board voted to include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination rules.

Implications Debated

David LaFontaine, the director of the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, described the implications of those changes as chilling and dangerous.

"We don't hear people say we need balanced views of racism," he said. "What we are talking about is creating human rights across the board. Some old myths take time to die."

But the state school board's chairman, James A. Peyser, said the changes made the regulations more practical for schools and better reflected the mission of the public school system. Expecting teachers and principals to counteract all stereotypes, he said, is an impossible task.

"All you need to meet the threshold is to find someone who takes offense at a character in a book or play," he said. "It's a distraction from the core focus of schools."

The issue raises deeper questions about the school's role in portraying certain groups, Mr. Peyser added. He warned against the danger of creating an "identity-based curriculum" that would be more concerned with making sure groups were represented positively than with teaching what he called "traditional academics."

"I don't think that is our role or good educational policy," he said.

In 1993, Massachusetts became the second state in the nation, after Wisconsin, to protect students from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Its action followed a campaign by the Boston chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and other groups. GLSEN has joined with the Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and the governor's commission to urge the state board to create stronger curriculum guidelines.

Kevin Jennings

Kevin Jennings, the executive director and founder of GLSEN, a New York City- based organization that seeks to end anti-gay attitudes and harassment in schools, described the Massachusetts board's vote as "one step forward, one step back."

Mr. Jennings, a former teacher in the state, said requiring schools to work actively to end bias and discrimination was encouraging. But the change in the curriculum section, he said, makes the regulations contradictory.

Along with Massachusetts and Wisconsin, California and Connecticut have laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment against homosexual students. But as more attention has been given to the abuse those students face, Mr. Jennings said, more states are recognizing the need to adopt protections. Among other states, Colorado, Maryland, New York, and Texas all have legislation pending that would extend protections to gay students.

In 1996, a federal district court ruled that the Ashland, Wis., school district's failure to discipline a student who had repeatedly beaten a gay student had violated the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The 2,4000- student district was ordered to pay the gay former student $900,000.("Homosexual Students: A Group Particularly Vulnerable to Suicide," April 19, 2000.)

"This is an issue that has exploded over the last few years," Mr. Jennings said. "This is increasingly a topic educators and legislators are beginning to address. This is a population most educators were not even aware of 10 years ago."

One member of that population in Massachusetts, 17-year-old Jason Lydon, said in an interview last week that he began receiving threats and taunts after publicly revealing during his sophomore year that he was gay.

"I get called names frequently," said Mr. Lydon, a junior at Silver Lake Regional High School in Kingston, Mass. "I don't think the support is there. The main thing is getting the teachers and students educated."

Vol. 19, Issue 36, Page 23

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