The nation's largest teachers union will ask school districts to protect homosexual students and staff by adopting policies that punish harassment and discrimination.
Under a plan adopted Friday by the National Education Assn.'s board of directors, schools also will be encouraged to develop factual materials for classroom discussions on homosexuality. All staff and students will be encouraged to speak up when they see or experience discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"I think it's a pretty clear signal that the organization recognizes there are some pretty serious needs for gay and lesbian children in school Â and employees," said Penny Kotterman, president of the Arizona Education Assn. She chairs the NEA's Task Force on Sexual Orientation, which was created last fall to develop the plan.
Kotterman, a middle school special education teacher in the Kyrene School District in suburban Phoenix, said the plan will help schools with difficult issues of student sexuality.
"Staff do need help," she said. "They need professional development, they need good, factual data that helps them deal with these issues."
The union said it could provide "accurate, objective and up-to-date information" on the needs and problems of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students and staff.
A statement by the NEA said the information schools provide should be age-appropriate, nonjudgmental and relevant to subject matter being studied.
Studies indicate that homosexual students have higher dropout and suicide rates and sometimes are treated with hostility by fellow students. NEA President Bob Chase has said gay and lesbian teachers in some states face losing their jobs because of their sexual orientation.
"It is clear that, in too many places, students and education employees who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered face a hostile environment," Chase said Friday in the statement.
A study last year by the University of North Carolina estimated that 5 percent to 6 percent of students 17 or younger, or more than 2 million students, are gay, lesbian or bisexual.
The NEA represents 2.6 million teachers and other school employees.