One of the stated beliefs of the Loudoun County School Board is that an inclusive environment is the foundation for student growth. But there is a class of students and staff not protected by anti-discrimination or harassment policies, Vice Chairman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) said at the board’s Nov. 29 meeting.
LGBTQ students miss school because of safety concerns related to bullying more than all other minority groups combined, Sheridan said, citing a National PTA Convention resolution. For that reason, she proposed adding sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class in Loudoun County Public Schools’ harassment and discrimination policies.
“The violence in Orlando this summer against LGBTQ young adults was a fresh reminder for each student of the hostility in this world. It’s our duty to create a world that is safe to learn and not be afraid,” Sheridan said. “… Our schools continue to fail these marginalized students.”
Nationally, 55 percent of LGBTQ students feel unsafe at school, one in five students report being physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and LGBTQ students are two to four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers, Sheridan said.
But even then, many students are afraid to come forward because they feel staff either does not care, won’t do anything, or reporting the abuse would only make the abuse worse. LCPS staff who identify as LGBTQ are also less likely to come forward about discrimination or harassment complaints since they are not a protected class, Sheridan said.
Sheridan pointed to Arlington County and Falls Church’s more progressive policies which include some or all LGBTQ protections. In 2010, counties across the country added sexual orientation and gender identity to their list of protected classes following a letter from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors added equal employment protections for LGBTQ individuals, but LCPS did not, Sheridan said at the meeting.
“We’re behind the times on this,” board member Joy Maloney (Broad Run) said. Maloney seconded Sheridan’s proposal to add LGBTQ protections in the LCPS harassment and discrimination policies.
A 2013 study by Columbia University found that when schools add specific LGBTQ protections to harassment policies, those students had better mental health and were less likely to attempt suicide.
Virginia state law does not include sexual orientation and gender identity in non-discrimination policy. Board members Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin), Debbie Rose (Algonkian) and Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said they did not want to go beyond state law.
Jeff Morse (Dulles) vehemently opposed adding more protected classes to discrimination policy, saying that labeling groups of individuals promotes divisiveness.
“I’ve made it clear that every single student is important and I’m done with labels,” Morse said.
Maloney responded to multiple board member’s complaints against labels by saying if the labels are not important, then the board should “put its money where its mouth is” and get rid of all labels from discrimination and harassment policies and make a blanket statement instead. Beth Huck (At Large) agreed.
LCPS can go beyond the scope of the law in protecting LGBTQ students and staff, Sheridan said at the meeting. She also made clear from talking to LGBTQ students and staff, that they want the specific labels in the policies so that they know for sure, they are protected.
By not listing sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class, Sheridan worries it sends the message that LCPS condones bullying and harassment based on these identities, and it is up to school board members as public servants to speak for and protect all their constituents.
“Society encourages through discrimination, bullying and harassment to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity … and that in and of it itself is my core problem,” Sheridan said. “Because when you hide, that produces shame in children. That produces fear in adults for their jobs and when you have shame and fear, this is leading to (not accepting) who you are at your core and therefore leads to the increase in the suicide rate and the depression increase.”
It would cost the board nothing to add LGBTQ protections against discrimination and harassment, Sheridan said. Not adding any protections though, could have a very high cost — such as LGBTQ students dropping out from bullying or attempting suicide.
Board chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) questioned the legality of removing all protected classes from the equal opportunity statement and suggested not voting on the matter until the board could consult legal counsel. Sheridan agreed and moved to table the two motions, which Morse seconded.
Sheridan made the motion to table voting on the policies in order to let the discussion continue and allow for the public to weigh in.
“Just having the opportunity to have the discussion is so important. The willingness of people to have the discussion and teach us is so important. Those of us who don’t understand and don’t have the perspective, we need to be educated. We need to find the perspective, we need to be able to understand why it’s important,” Sheridan said. “It’s about understanding and education. That’s what’s important to me, that we educate so that we can be accepting of other people’s differences whether it’s your religion, skin color, national origin, race, gender or who you love.”
The board will taking up the amendment of its employment and student discrimination policies at its next meeting on Dec. 13.