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Charlotte schools consider anti-bullying policy
Proposal faces resistance from conservative leaders

by Matt Comer . Q-Notes staff

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are begin
ning the formal process toward adopting an LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policy.
CHARLOTTE — Members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education formally introduced an LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policy at their Feb. 12 meeting, despite outcries and resistance from anti-gay colleagues and community members.

The policy proposed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Superintendent Peter Gorman offers protections for “real or perceived … sexual orientation [and] gender identity/expression,” as well as protections against bullying based on “linguistic or language differences … socioeconomic status, height, weight, physical characteristics, marital status, parental status, or physical, mental or sensory disability.”

The guideline was originally endorsed by the CMS Equity Committee, chaired by Charlotte Business Guild member and CMS parent Kelley Doherty. She told The Charlotte Observer on Feb. 12, “If you talk to students who are bullied, they will tell you that they’re not protected and they don’t know where to go… If you are singled out, it is merciless.”

In the same article, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James, one of the area’s most vocal anti-gay opponents, said the change would lead to “sex-education programs teaching that ‘alternative lifestyles are normal’” and “elementary teachers telling children that ‘having two daddies or two mommies is perfectly normal.’”

Gorman’s proposal was first discussed at the school board’s January retreat. According to The Charlotte Observer, board members Kaye McGarry and Ken Gjertsen pushed for an alternative policy excluding the list of protected categories. McGarry also presented a 2003 article from a fundamentalist writer claiming that policies including gay students lead to an “aggressive pro-homosexual agenda in the classrooms.”

At the February board meeting, McGarry made a motion to have her alternative policy placed on the agenda for consideration. The attempt failed 5-4.

When the floor was opened for discussion of the inclusive proposal, which is scheduled for a vote at the March 11 meeting, a few members of the community spoke for it while one argued against.

Paul Martin, well-known for his right-wing crusading at government meetings, trotted out the usual litany of debunked anti-gay statistics to show that “the gay and lesbian lifestyle” is unhealthy and lowers life expectancy.

“The fact is homosexuality is caused by a profound sense of rejection, a broken heart. … To tell children that homosexuality is an answer to their life problems is criminal,” he said.

Martin directed his closing comments to board member Trent Merchant, the primary supporter of the anti-bullying policy, and his Democratic peers. “Mr. Merchant, Democrats and people like yourself have run this community for a long time and the longer you all are in charge the worse things are getting. And you’re going to find that out someday, pal.”

Brian Zarbock, an openly gay senior at Providence High School and president of the school’s gay-straight alliance, implored board members to take the necessary steps to make schools safe for all students.

“This board is setting forth policies that make me feel unsafe and as though I don’t belong,” he said. “I have the right like everyone else to have a safe and welcoming environment.”

Zarbrock’s comments seemed prescient and powerful two days later when an openly gay middle school student in Oxnard, Calif., was fatally shot in the head and back by a classmate. The victim, Lawrence King, 15, was killed in class by 14-year-old Brandon McInerney. Lawrence had been involved in an altercation with his killer and other boys a day earlier over his sexual orientation.

Judy Seldin-Cohen, board chair of the LGBT youth support and advocacy group Time Out Youth, countered an assertion by McGarry that CMS would be best served by adopting a policy similar to the one passed by the North Carolina Board of Education in 2005. Like McGarry’s proposal, the statewide policy identifies no protected classes.

“Maybe you think the North Carolina Board of Education should decide this issue,” Seldin-Cohen said. “The 1950s Charlotte school board delayed integration by three years with that argument. Will you be like the school board of the 1950s, allowing privileged parents and their children to intimidate others from getting an education, citing current polices as excuses?”

She added that categorically protecting LGBT students would guarantee a decrease in harassment levels. “When sexual orientation becomes an explicitly protected class in anti-bullying policies teachers intervene more often and more effectively and bullying remarks occur less frequently.”

Creating safe schools has been at the forefront of state LGBT advocacy efforts the past year. In the spring of 2007, the work paid off when the N.C. House of Representatives passed legislation protecting students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender-identity, among other characteristics. Unfortunately, the Senate version of the bill failed to include protected categories.

According to a report from Equality North Carolina (ENC), 24 school systems across the state include sexual orientation in their anti-bullying policies, with eight systems also covering gender-identity. CMS was listed among the systems including sexual orientation, but ENC Executive Director Ian Palmquist noted that the CMS policy they reviewed was not a formal guideline.

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