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In a landmark move, the Salt Lake City school board voted Tuesday to approve a policy providing protection from discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The policy, believed to be the first of its kind for a school district in Utah, divided the board 4-3 and provides protection for both students and district staff. Members Mark Maxfield, Alama Uluave and Laurel Heath Young voted against the measure.
Several board members struggled to control tempers and emotions while discussing the policy, causing President Kristi Swett to call for civil discussion on several occasions.
The decision adds sexual orientation and gender identity to an existing list of protected classes, such as race and religion, a move that board member Uluave said will place the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community "on a pedestal." He asked that the board eliminate the language from the policy because the issue falls under the jurisdiction of government, not school districts.
The policy would do nothing of the sort, argued board member Doug Nelson. Instead, it would create an environment of respect and safety for all students and employees. The historic nature of the policy was not lost on Nelson, who recalled that the same board had eliminated all non-curricular clubs 14 years ago rather than allow a gay-straight alliance group.
Maxfield, in his last meeting as a board member, cautioned against enacting "extremely liberal" policies that may draw condemnation from the Utah Legislature, which holds the purse strings for the district.
"I don't want any kid to get harassed for any reason, including the ones we are talking about," Maxfield said. "But I think we can handle it without going to this extreme."
Young suggested splitting the policy to create one for students and another for staff, hoping that the student policy would not contain the phrase "gender identity," fearing it would cause confusion and uncomfortable situations for parents, but the motion was defeated.
"We need to stop talking about it and get it passed," said vice president Heather Bennett.
The final vote passing the policy drew applause from the audience, several of whom spoke in favor of the motion earlier in the meeting.
"Gender identity is not visible," said Brianne Blanchard, who is transgender. "Gender identity is how I know who I am."