Va. Beach school board considers LGBT protections

Jordan Crawford | 11/14/2013, 10:05 a.m.
Virginia Beach school board members want to protect gay students from bullying and gay employees from discrimination by changing the ...

Some School Board members feel that if standing for justice and personal safety is wrong, then they don’t want to be right.

They want to protect gay students from bullying and gay employees from discrimination by changing the school division's policies. And this week, they said they’re willing to do it despite a state law that some — including the board’s attorney— say prohibits the move.

Supporters on the board said it’s worth a calculated risk. Plus, they say, other divisions and the city have made similar amendments to their policies.

Board Chairman Dan Edwards likened the situation to getting pulled over on the interstate. “Any cop will tell you you’re supposed to go 55 miles per hour, but in reality, no one else is going that slow,” he said.

The issue presented itself a few weeks ago, when board members considered asking state delegates to add sexual orientation and gender identity to classes of people protected from discrimination under the Virginia Human Rights Act. Under the usual interpretation of the law, that would allow them to change the policies that govern Virginia Beach’s public schools. The item would have appeared in the board’s legislative agenda, an annual wish list for the General Assembly.

Board member Joel McDonald said he wanted to add that language to the board’s employee nondiscrimination and student anti-bullying policies. When the board’s attorney asked him to wait until the state law changes he asked for the legislative agenda item instead.

Some board members balked, saying the agenda is meant for changes outside the board’s control, such as getting more state money for schools. So instead, during their recent meeting, they looked at dropping the legislative agenda item and simply adding sexual orientation to the division’s own policies.

Carolyn Weems, a board member who opposed adding it to the legislative agenda, said she is open to changing the board’s policies or possibly passing a resolution on the topic. A teacher she spoke with said it would give lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students “something to grasp onto,” she said.

But she worries about the potential legal ramifications of changing the policy. A discrimination lawsuit could cost the schools millions of dollars they don’t have, she said.

“I agree with the intent, and I understand, but I do have to listen to legal advice,” Weems said. “I hope we can come up with something that will get everyone's thumbs up.”

Board members who have spoken with Kamala Lannetti, the board’s attorney, said she won’t sign off on the change. In an email, Lannetti said she’s not authorized to speak to reporters.

James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, urges school boards to add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to their anti-bullying policies. They have the authority to do it, he said, and they should because LGBT students are at a greater risk than most for bullying and suicide, and studies have shown that listing them in policies helps.

“It’s spelled out to the administration and kids,” he said. Fairfax, Charlottesville, Albemarle and Arlington schools have all made that change, he said.