School Climate & Safety

ACLU Says Ky. District Not Providing Anti-Bias Training

By Karla Scoon Reid — July 26, 2005 3 min read
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The American Civil Liberties Union has asked a federal judge to reopen its lawsuit against a Kentucky school district that was ordered to provide training emphasizing tolerance toward gay students.

The motion filed this month began the latest chapter in a battle that started three years ago, when a group of students formed a gay-straight student club and sought permission to meet at Boyd County High School in Cannonsburg.

Rather than allow the group to meet, the Boyd County school board banned all student clubs in 2002. A federal judge ordered the next year that the student-led Gay-Straight Alliance be allowed to meet at the high school.

A settlement reached between the ACLU and the board in 2004 mandated sensitivity training for school staff members and secondary school students. The 3,300-student district also was required to treat all student clubs equally.

This past February, the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based legal-advocacy organization, filed suit against the school board in federal court, arguing that Boyd County students’ free speech rights were being violated by a new board policy that bars students from saying that homosexuality is wrong.

That suit also argued that students should not have been punished for opting out of the training, as some were allowed to do.

On July 15, lawyers for the school board, the ACLU, and the Alliance Defense Fund attended a mediation session with U.S. District Court Judge David L. Bunning in Covington, Ky., in an attempt to resolve the issues in that lawsuit without the court’s intervention.

A lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund said in an interview last week that “considerable” strides had been made in resolving the group’s concerns.

In addition, Sharon McGowan, a staff lawyer for the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in New York City, said she was hopeful that differences over the staff and student training could be worked out. Another mediation session is scheduled for Aug. 29. Meanwhile, the Gay-Straight Alliance at Boyd County High is no longer active. Most of the students who formed the club have graduated, and the teacher who advised the group now works at a different school.

Opting Out

In an interview this month, Ms. McGowan said that the student training—an anti-bullying video that middle and high school students viewed last fall—spent less than 10 minutes addressing the harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.

The three-hour staff training session similarly spent little time on the harassment of gay students, according to Ms. McGowan.

In addition to questioning the substance of the training, the ACLU is challenging the school board’s decision to allow students who had parental permission to opt out of viewing the video. Those students were given unexcused absences for the class period that they missed.

According to the ACLU, more than 40 percent of the district’s 1,695 middle and high school students did not attend the training.

“They are conveying how little they value this training,” Ms. McGowan said of the school officials. “And the students are not even given a slap on the wrist—it’s a slap on the wrist with a feather.”

Sheri Bryan, the chairwoman of the school board, acknowledged that students were not forced to attend the training session, which she believes adequately addresses the harassment of gay students.

Ms. Bryan added that district staff members developed the training with representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, a New York City-based organization that fights intolerance and extremism.

Michael Salberg, the general counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said its approach to anti-bias training addresses the overall environment rather than focusing on behavior targeting one particular group. Staff members from the Anti-Defamation League were on hand during the Boyd County sessions.

“When there’s bias and prejudice toward a particular group manifesting itself in a school or work setting, that’s symptomatic of a larger problem,” he said.

But Kevin Theriot, the senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said Boyd County parents and community members contacted the organization out of concern that the training presents homosexuality as morally acceptable, a stance that is contrary to their religious beliefs.

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