Equity & Diversity

Calif. Panel Urges Safer Climate For Gay Students, Staff

By Jessica L. Sandham — April 18, 2001 3 min read
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California schools need to educate students and employees about the new rights and responsibilities stemming from a recent state law that prohibits discrimination and harassment against students and staff members based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, says a task force convened to recommend ways of putting the law into practice.

In a report released last week, the 36-member panel also recommends that the state identify educational resources addressing sexual orientation and gender identity and update its academic standards to reflect issues, historical events, and figures associated with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and “transgendered” people.

For More Information

The task force’s report, as well as supplemental information, is available from California Department of Education. (The report requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“This is not about sex ed,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said following the April 11 release of the recommendations. “It’s about safety and preventing the bullying and harassment of students. This is about trying to make sure that all children go to school feeling secure.”

Ms. Eastin convened the task force—made up of school officials, members of the clergy, gay-rights advocates, and others—to help schools fulfill the provisions of Assembly Bill 537, a law passed by the California legislature last year. The measure expanded the state’s anti- discrimination protections to include a guarantee that all students and staff members in public schools have a right to a safe learning environment regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

A National Problem

In a 1999 national survey released by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, more than two-thirds of the almost 500 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students polled said they had experienced verbal harassment in school.

Kathy Gill, who co-chaired the California task force and is the director of the gay and lesbian education commission for the Los Angeles schools, said the task force’s recommendations couldn’t have come too soon.

Ms. Gill said that even students as young as 2nd graders are the victims of continual harassment related to sexual or gender identity, to the point that they sometimes decide to switch schools. “We now have closed the loop,” Ms. Gill said. “We have a way to ensure that all students have the protection they need to have a safe education.”

But Beverly Sheldon, the director of research for the Traditional Values Coalition, a nondenominational advocacy group in Anaheim, Calif., said that the task force’s focus on violence prevention masked a broader effort to present homosexuality as a socially and morally acceptable choice of lifestyle. Students and teachers who view homosexuality as an aberrant behavior will be the new victims, she said.

“We are very, very supportive of children having no violence against them, but there were laws on the books before this one,” Ms. Sheldon said. “They are using this discussion of violence prevention to advocate homosexuality.”

School officials in the 33,000-student Modesto City School District in central California implemented a district policy with provisions similar to those in AB 537 three years ago, after learning about the kind of harassment endured by an openly homosexual student in one of the district’s high schools.

“He’d have food thrown at him, comments made to him all the time,” said Rosalie A. Pinkert, the district’s character education coordinator. “It was constant. He’d have something written on his locker, and the principal would have it cleaned, and then an hour later it would be up there again.”

‘Rights and Responsibilities’

After members of some religious groups in the community expressed concern that the district’s policy ran counter to their beliefs, district officials enlisted them as committee members to craft a new policy—known as the “principles of rights, responsibilities, and respect"—that everyone could agree on.

But while harassment tied to real or perceived sexual orientation is not as prevalent in the district as it used to be, Ms. Pinkert said, “it’s still an issue.”

“We’re not done,” she said. “We just keep coming back to the notion that all kids need to be safe. It comes from constantly talking about respect, and you never, ever finish.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as Calif. Panel Urges Safer Climate For Gay Students, Staff

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