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LGBT students in Tennessee could lose anti-bullying protection

Mayer Nissim October 3, 2017
Children in class in a Knox County school (knoxschools.org)

Children in class in a Knox County school (knoxschools.org)

LGBT students and employees could lose protection from harassment in a Tennessee county if a planned change in policy goes ahead.

The Knox County school board has floated plans to alter its anti-harassment policy from one which explicitly mentions LGBT protections to one that doesn’t.

The plans have been under discussion since last month, and are going to be voted on at the next school board meeting on October 11.

Rocky Hill Elementary School (knoxschools.org)
Rocky Hill Elementary School (knoxschools.org)

Students have protested the proposed changes at two schools in the area, WATE.com reports.

Members of the Gay Straight Alliance at Bearden High School held a protest calling for the wording to remain the same.

A similar in-school protest was held at Equality Club at L&N STEM Academy.

Students in class (knoxschools.org)
Students in class (knoxschools.org)

“I am a bisexual person and to know that if I were harassed on Knox County Schools’ property, that I am not legally protected on the basis of my sexual orientation, but only on sex, which only refers to the biological sex of a person,” said Jenna Rochelson, a 16-year-old student.

“I feel like my protections are being taken away and that’s really scary.”

Related: Lesbians open up about Tennessee court battle over anti-LGBT law

While the school board maintains that the policy itself is not being altered, such protests from LGBT activists could yet force a u-turn, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports.

West Haven Elementary School (knoxschools.org)
West Haven Elementary School (knoxschools.org)

Currently, the policy refers to both “sexual orientation”, which covers lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

It also includes the phrase “actual or perceived gender”, which is thought to cover transgender students, teachers and other school employees.

Both these phrases have been replaced by “sex”, and while the school says nothing will changed. LGBT advocates have disagreed.

Go Bulldogs! (knoxschools.org)
Go Bulldogs! (knoxschools.org)

They have suggested that without the explicit language being retained, students and teachers may no longer be protected by the policy.

Tennessee doesn’t have the best record on LGBT rights, which could explain why some are worried.

Earlier this year, the state passed a so-called “natural and ordinary” law that could strip LGBT people of their legal protections.

The move prompted lawsuits from lesbian couples in the state.

Powell Elementary School (knoxschools.org)
Powell Elementary School (knoxschools.org)

Patrick Grzanka, a professor in the University of Tennessee’s women, gender and sexuality program, said that he was “horrified” by the proposal by the Knox County school board.

“There is something really meaningful there in exchange for biological sex,” he said.

“There aren’t too many logical leaps to get to point where we see why ‘sex’ would be preferable to ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘perceived gender’.”

Leticia Flores of the Tennessee Equality Project complained that the school board has not given a suitable reason for the change.

She added that there was “intense worry” among LGBT students and school employees over the matter.

The school board denied that there would be any substantive change in the policy and suggested it was purely simplifying the wording and bringing it in line with other state policies.

A spokesperson for Knox County Schools Carly Harrington said that the term “sex” would in fact provide protections to LGBT people, covering sexual orientation and gender identity and “does not change the intent of the employee harassment policy”.

This is at odds with the brief filed by Donald Trump’s administration earlier this year regarding a case in New York.

Amherst Elementary School (knoxschools.org)
Amherst Elementary School (knoxschools.org)

“We looked at state law, aligning it more closely with state law,” added board chair Patti Bounds.

“It wasn’t taking away any protections, the new policy just didn’t list specific groups.”

She added: “The message that was conveyed on social media by certain people was very fear-based and an attempt to create a firestorm, in my opinion, but that was never the intention of the board.”

In the face of opposition from LGBT groups, Superintendent Bob Thomas said that the decision to change the policy may be halted, though he maintained “there was no attempt to limit the policy”.

More: bullying, harassment, knox county, lgbt protection, LGBT students, school, Tennessee, US

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