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A federal court in Philadelphia strikes down a school district's anti-harassment policy on the grounds that it violates the rights of Christian students who want to condemn homosexuality.



NEW YORK (February 16, 2001) -- Anti-gay harassment and discrimination are a regular part of school life for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students. In America's schoolhouses, anti-gay epithets have emerged as the epithet of choice. Our 1999 national school climate survey revealed that 61 percent of LGBT students had been victims of verbal harassment at school. This abuse places a barrier between an entire category of students and its right to access an intimidation-free learning environment.

While we're in the process of reviewing the decision, GLSEN agrees with the Court's premise that no one is well served by policies that place an unreasonable restriction on free speech -- that are, indeed, "overly broad."' However, freedom to speak does not equal the freedom to harass, which is why anti-harassment policies remain a necessary and appropriate tool to ensure equal educational access for all. It appears that nothing in this case undermines or contradicts that assertion. As the court said in its ruling, "preventing discrimination in the workplace and in the schools is not only a legitimate, but a compelling, government interest."

GLSEN will continue its work to prescribe and advocate for policies that balance our precious right to free speech with the right of every American school child to an equal education.




RUTLAND, Vt. - In an atmosphere as highly charged as the summer air before a thunderstorm, Vermont's new commissioner of education has been carrying a message of respect for diversity to the schools of this state.

In late October, David S. Wolk, who took over the Vermont Department of Education in February, delivered the keynote address at a school convention held every two years here in Rutland, the state's second-largest city. He began by issuing a challenge to the assembled students from three area schools: "Look at the person to your left. Look at the person to the your right. If you know them, think about who they are and what they mean to you. If you don't know them, maybe you should."

He said that humans are members of one big family, and asked, "Since we are all related to each other as brothers and sisters, don't you think we could be less prejudiced, more understanding, and less biased in our treatment of each other?"

It is a message Mr. Wolk has conveyed in a variety of forms to a variety of audiences, and, at another time, his speech might have attracted little attention outside education circles. Indeed, Mr. Wolk, 51, said his message had been consistent throughout his long career as a teacher, guidance counselor, principal and school superintendent.

"There's nothing new about this message," he said. "I talk to kids about this all the time. Schools must provide safe, civil, orderly environments that are conducive to learning. That means everybody in the community must feel safe."

But in the climate of civil strife that has developed over Vermont's civil-unions law, which affords the legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, Mr. Wolk drew much outside attention when he asked: "Why do we allow such hurtful criticism of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, by making crass and painful jokes at the expense of those whose sexual orientation is so threatening to us? Why is homophobia such a common form of harassment in our schools and in our society?"

Response to the message was mixed, even among Roman Catholic educators, although the church has made clear its opposition to homosexuality in general and civil unions in particular. John McCarthy, lay principal of the Rice Memorial High School, a large Catholic high school in Burlington, said he understood Mr. Wolk to be making "a statement about school safety. All of us in education are in favor of safe schools."

But Tony Cirelli, assistant principal of Mount St. Joseph Academy here, one of the participating schools, said the academy held a follow-up assembly. "We wanted to let our students know that we had no idea what Mr. Wolk would talk about," he said. "His address did make some of our students and parents uncomfortable. As a Catholic community, our position is that we may love the individuals but we do not accept the act."

Fans of the speech included Mr. Wolk's boss and longtime friend, Gov. Howard Dean. "Diversity is the future of this country, and it's very important that we all learn how to walk in someone else's shoes," Mr. Dean said.

In fact, Mr. Wolk's speech covered far more than homophobia; he also asked audience members to examine their attitudes about religious, ethnic, racial and gender differences.

"We live in the whitest state in the country, and there is racism and intolerance just below the surface," he said.

The heat sparked by the civil unions law, which took effect July 1, has reached every aspect of Vermont life. The law was pivotal in Tuesday's elections, resulting in a takeover of the Vermont House by Republicans, who were largely opposed to the law. It thrust Mr. Dean, a Democrat who supported the law, into a difficult re-election campaign. He won with a slim majority.

Mr. Wolk does not deny that his campaign for respect has cost him something personally, although he is reluctant to talk about it. But, he says, "I've had a lot of kids come up to me with knowing looks and say, `Thank you.' They tell me it has made a difference in the climate of the schools."




By Mark Stroh
Philadelphia Inquirer
October 25, 2000

A Haverford High School student faces a preliminary hearing Nov. 9 on charges of disorderly conduct, harassment and making terrorist threats over his allegedly taping a poster advocating violence against homosexuals to the wall of the school cafeteria during a lunch period.

Haverford police arrested Ryan Thomas Schlembach, 18, of the 400 block of Lincoln Avenue, shortly after 12:40 p.m. Oct. 11, according to a police affidavit. He was released on his own recognizance.

The handmade sign said the day had been designated for beating up on gays. It was in response to one of that day's morning announcements over the public address system, Superintendent Leonard Vender said. The announcements included a notice from the school's Gay-Straight Alliance that the day was National Coming Out Day, Vender said.

Vender said the notice "slipped through. That probably was not an appropriate announcement to make during morning announcements."

The Gay-Straight Alliance was formed in May, Vender said. He said he did not know how many students were members, but he said that to be recognized, clubs at the school had to submit a petition signed by at least 25 students.

The arrest came two days before a tolerance-themed assembly sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League took place at the school.

On Oct. 13, Tom Martinez, a former white supremacist, spoke to ninth and 10th graders about the dangers of hate groups and returned a week later to speak to members of the school's upper classes. Vender said that the assemblies had been scheduled over the summer, not in response to the arrest.

Schlembach was suspended from school, Vender said, but has returned. The student's mother declined comment, saying she had to talk with her son's lawyer.

Denis Gray, the school board president, said the nature of the poster, not its target, was the issue. "The sign in itself is violent. I would be this upset if the sign were against any group," Gray said. "We cannot tolerate violence in our schools against anybody."

"Anytime a threat is made to a group of students, regardless of who they are, we take that very seriously," Vender said.



By Maria Brosnan Liebel
Santa Rosa (CA) Press Democrat
October 4, 2000

Petaluma city schools staffers are being advised this week of a "hands-off'' policy regarding the distribution of Boy Scout recruitment fliers because of the organization's ban on homosexuals.

The fliers will be allowed at schools, where Scouts or parents may distribute them, but school officials literally cannot touch the material, Superintendent Carl Wong said.

Administrators received the policy recommendation from attorneys after several gay rights supporters asked the school board to stop allowing the Boy Scouts to recruit on school campuses.

"I don't think anyone should put out a flier or any invitation if they discriminate against any group,'' Rosie Steffy, a sophomore at Petaluma High School, told the Board of Education at last week's meeting.

Steven Cozza, an Eagle Scout who formed Petaluma High School's Gay Straight Alliance, said the Boy Scouts violate the school district's anti-discrimination policy.

He asked the board to ban the Scouts from using school facilities and to prohibit them from disseminating recruitment fliers on campuses.

The Old Adobe Union School District board recently took up the issue, but voted 3-2 to continue allowing the recruiting effort on school grounds. Cozza said if he knew the Boy Scouts discriminated, he would never have joined the organization.

"If the schools have a non-discriminatory policy then the Boy Scouts should not be able to use school facilities,'' Cozza told the school board. Cozza has gained national attention for his campaign to change Scouting's policy.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the Boy Scouts are a private organization and are entitled to set their own membership standards. Wong said the school district's attorney has advised all Sonoma County schools that they must allow the Scouts access to school facilities under the Civic Center Act, which requires public schools to be open to nonprofit organizations.

"The Civic Center Act says we cannot discriminate, even if the organization discriminates,'' board member Lou Steinberg.

Wong said schools attorney Robert Henry advised that staff handling of Scout material would be a violation of the Education Code since the high court upheld the Scouting's prohibition of gays and atheists.

"We should be hands off,'' Wong said, because it would constitute staff using school time and resources "to support an organization that knowingly discriminates.''

Students, however, have "wide latitude'' under the First Amendment to distribute whatever printed material they want themselves, he said. Adult Scout leaders must be given the same permission as any other organization to distribute advertising on campus.

A school staff member can point to a table for a Scout leader to leave a stack of fliers, Wong said, but that employee cannot physically place them there.

Cozza said at the meeting that if the Scouts are allowed to continue advertising, their fliers should include a statement that certain groups of people are not welcome.

But Wong said later that there is no precedent in law or school district policy to require such a disclaimer, and the district was advised against doing so.

Cozza also told the board that Scouting troops that sign the district's application for a facilities use permit do so in violation of Scout rules because of the permit's statement that the organization promises not to discriminate "in the legal sense.''

Scott Oldenburg, head of the Boy Scouts Redwood Empire Council, said troops do not have the authority to sign legal documents that are contrary to the rules of Boy Scouts of America. He said he was unaware Petaluma was requiring troops to agree to the non-discrimination statement. "The real issue is what the school districts can and cannot do and should and should not do legally,'' Oldenburg said later last week.

Wong said he added the non-discrimination clause to the permit application so it would conform with district policy. But he said he would not deny a group use of school facilities if it doesn't agree to the clause. "I'm not willing to volunteer Petaluma city schools to be a (legal) test case,'' Wong said.

Ron Burnett, a former Scout, said at the meeting the issue about gays in Scouting is becoming polarized. "I would hope Scout leaders would not see this as an attack. It's a way of getting attention,'' he said.

Cozza's father, Scott Cozza, representing Scouting for All, said he has asked the American Civil Liberties Union to help change the Civic Center Act. But an ACLU spokeswoman in San Diego, where a lawsuit regarding the act is pending, said the civil rights organization would likely not take a position to change the law. She said it would be unconstitutional for the state to deny groups access to public property based upon their beliefs. She said the ACLU might find itself on the side of the Boy Scouts of America, despite the ACLU's opposition to the Scout ban on gays.

"If the government were to start picking and choosing among groups based upon their views and policies, we are opposed to that,'' ACLU spokeswoman Dale Kelly Bankhead said.

The San Diego lawsuit, filed by the ACLU, is over preferential treatment given to Boy Scout troops allowed to use a public park for free. Bankhead said the plaintiffs, two families with 8-year-old boys, are asking the city to enforce its lease that requires the group to not discriminate.



By Steven Du Bois
The Associated Press
11/9/00 3:35 AM

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- In Oregon schools, Heather can still talk about her two mommies and Bobby can show his love for Jimmy.

Voters narrowly defeated a proposal to ban Oregon educators from discussing homosexuality in a positive way, dealing Lon Mabon and the Oregon Citizens Alliance its third anti-gay election defeat in eight years.

"This is an incredible victory for gay youth; Oregon voters have sent a message that you can't choose which students are legitimate and which students are not," said Jim Anderson, a spokesman for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a gay-rights group that has been criticized by the OCA.

With 95 percent of the votes counted Wednesday evening, Measure 9 was losing 52 percent to 48 percent.

Measure 9 would have prevented Oregon public schools from providing instruction that would encourage, promote or sanction homosexual behavior. Schools found in violation would be punished by losing some or all of their state financing, a decision that would be made by the state superintendent.

Rural counties mostly supported the measure, while Multnomah County -- which contains Portland -- rejected it by an almost 2-to-1 margin.

Mabon and his supporters said Measure 9 was needed to prevent schools from portraying homosexual behavior as natural and acceptable. Schools are sending children that message through growing gay activism in public education, the OCA argued, by adopting nondiscrimination policies that single out gay and lesbian students for protection, by stocking libraries with pro-gay books and by bringing pro-gay speakers into classrooms.

"Obviously being outspent 7-to-1 is hard to overcome," said Mabon, who plans to re-word the measure and place it on the 2002 ballot. "But I think what cost us was the distortion that the OCA wanted to get rid of all AIDS education, when that simply wasn't true."

Though AIDS education wouldn't have been removed, it would have likely been revamped. For instance, Measure 9 supporters want teachers to discuss the dangers of sodomy rather than the benefit of a condom.

Supporters also want gay students to be told that homosexuality isn't innate.

"I think it lost because a lot of people confuse Lon Mabon with intolerance and hatred," said John Ditmore, a teacher who appeared in a television ad supporting the measure. "But this has nothing to do with intolerance and hatred. In fact, it's cruel to tell a student with same-sex desires that he is homosexual and that he can't change; homosexuals can be changed, it's not predetermined."

Opponents said the measure would threaten policies that provide homosexual students with counseling and protection from harassment.

"If there's any good that comes out of this, it's that the people are now much more aware that there are gay and lesbian kids in Oregon, and they are often subject to harassment," said Kevin Jennings, the executive director of the gay-rights educators groups.



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