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Salt Lake City School District could be the first in Utah to ban discrimination against gay students and employees.
On Tuesday, the school board weighed an amendment that would add sexual orientation to the list of characteristics, such as race and religion, that would be illegal to use to target someone for harassment. The board will consider the issue again Nov. 2.
"This absolutely affects student learning. These students are harassed and bullied and discriminated against at a higher level than any other students in our school," said board member Amanda Thorderson. "Adding this policy sends a clear message that [this] will not be tolerated."
Last year, 85 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in U.S. middle and high schools experienced harassment at school, according to a national survey released last month by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Nearly a third said they had skipped class at least once because they felt unsafe at school.
Will Carlson, an openly gay candidate for school board, warned the board Tuesday that the change doesn't go far enough. The policy, he said, should also include gender identity so that transgender students and employees are protected. His opponent, board member Doug Nelson, supported the proposal as written.
"Issues of gender identity are a lot more apparent and visible than issues of sexual orientation. They are also in a lot more need of protection," Carlson said in an interview. "As long as we are addressing injustice against the LGBT community, why would we say we're going to protect 'LGB' but leave 'T' out?"
Heather Bennett, board vice president, said it considered including gender identity, but it was dropped after advice from an attorney and research indicated sexual orientation is more commonly covered.
"When we discussed [amending the policy] as a whole board in July, there were a lot of questions about leading out on this issue, especially in this state," Bennett said. "Without this language [of sexual orientation] in our nondiscrimination policy we are out of step with our community. When we put it in, we will be in better alignment with the values of Salt Lake City."
Last year, Salt Lake City became the first local government in the state to ban housing and employment discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. The move won a landmark endorsement from the LDS Church, and six more cities and counties have followed suit.
But board members Alama Uluave and Mark Maxfield expressed opposition to expanding the district's policy to include another "protected class."
"I thought the other classifications were sufficient for the protection of everyone," Uluave said. "I wonder if we're not opening up Pandora's box."
From Tuesday's discussion, it appeared likely the measure can secure a four-vote majority to pass.
McKay Tate, a former East High student, said he hopes it passes. Tate, who is gay, moved from East High to Davis High this year for his final year of high school. But he recently dropped out of school because he felt "ostracized."
In one class, a girl asked to move to another seat after she learned he was gay. She told the teacher, "He's sick," Tate said. Tate also grew weary of stares and questions about why he is gay.
"My entire life, I've been called a fag or a queer even before I knew I was gay," said Tate, in an interview at the board meeting. "I've dealt with it since seventh grade. I don't want to deal with another year of it."
Tate is pursuing his GED, but he said policies such as the one being considered in Salt Lake City district are necessary to help other students.
"I believe this needs to be done in all schools," Tate said. "No matter who you are, you should feel safe."
P The school board will discuss amending the policy at its next business meeting, Nov. 2 at 6:30 p.m., 440 E. 100 South. The board could vote at that meeting or delay a decision.