Education

Decision Pending in California Anti-Discrimination Flap

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 21, 2004 3 min read
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California education officials were poised late last week to decide if the Westminster school district’s new anti-discrimination policy meets state laws designed to protect transgender students—and if it doesn’t, what state sanctions they will impose.

The 10,000-student elementary school district in Orange County, Calif., stands to lose up to $10 million in state and federal categorical aid if its policy isn’t brought into compliance.

Westminster’s school board drew the attention of the state education department in February when the board refused to change the district’s anti-discrimination policy to comply with state law. At the center of the debate is how students identify their gender and how the district acknowledges such identifications.

Three members of the five-member school board had refused to change the district’s anti-discrimination policy because they objected to having the district recognize people who perceive their sex to be something other than what it is biologically.

The board has since backed off from its refusal to change the district’s policy at all.

In a 3-2 vote last week, the Westminster school board passed an anti-discrimination policy with new language designed to satisfy the state.

In a statement following that April 12 vote, California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell cited the importance of protecting every student’s civil rights, and said his office was reviewing the board’s revisions.

Adding ‘Sex’

The controversy began when Westminster district officials asked the local school board to add “sex” to a policy that already gave people the right to file complaints of discrimination against the district based on “ethnic group identification, religion, age, gender, color, or physical or mental disability.”

District officials told the board that the addition was needed to bring the policy into compliance with state law, but the school board rejected the change on a 3-2 vote. (“Calif. Board Splits Over Gender Identification,” March 24, 2004.)

Judy A. Ahrens, one of the three members who voted against such a policy change, said in a telephone interview last month that if “sex” were added to the policy, then “gender” would refer to someone’s perceived sex as well as his or her biological sex. She said it was against her religious convictions to vote for such a change.

Since then, state officials have conducted a compliance review of the Westminster district and told the board it must add not only “sex” to the list of legal areas for discrimination complaints, but also “sexual orientation,” “race,” and “ancestry.”

Though the board majority has been given a couple of opportunities since February to approve a policy that would include that recommended language, the three-member bloc has refused to budge, according to Trish Montgomery, the spokeswoman for the Westminster district.

Funding at Risk

The policy that was approved by the board on April 12 adds five new terms to the existing policy that may serve as legal areas for discrimination complaints: “sex,” “sexual orientation,” “race,” “ancestry,” and “national origin.”

The new policy also includes an added definition for “gender” that says, in part, that it is “the biological sex of an individual.”

In addition, the policy goes on to say that only the perception of gender on the part of the alleged discriminator is relevant, not the perception held by the alleged victim. Asked to explain the distinction, Ms. Ahrens referred questions to the board’s lawyer, though he did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The district has already been refused a $16 million bank loan for construction projects over the issue, according to Ms. Montgomery.

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