Topeka The Topeka school district is considering adding sexual orientation and transgender people to its anti-discrimination policy.
Advocates say the move will show that all students, faculty and staff are welcome in the district. Opponents say anti-discrimination language required by law already protects those groups, so the additions to the policy are not needed, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
The district board last Thursday unanimously approved the first reading of a proposal to add sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression to the district’s anti-discrimination policies. District attorney Cindy Kelly said the Department of Education recommended the changes in an advisory that said bullying and harassment of students due to sexual orientation or gender identity is increasing.
“It not only provides protection, but also sends a clear message that (a school district) will not tolerate discrimination,” said Stephanie Mott, a transgender woman who is chairwoman of the Topeka chapter of the Kansas Equality Coalition. “When that message is absent, it opens the door for discrimination.”
Board member Peg McCarthy, a clinical psychiatrist, said that surveys showed that 80 percent of gay and lesbian students feel unsafe in their schools and that more than 60 percent have experienced bullying. She predicted the issue would become more prominent because transgender students are making their sexual identity known at earlier ages.
Paul Getto, the policy specialist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that agency isn’t advising member school boards to add new language because protections against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination and harassment already exist. He said he thought few districts in Kansas have addressed the issue.
Julie Ford, formally hired Thursday as the district’s new superintendent, agreed with McCarthy that protecting transgender students would continue to be a growing issue. If the policy changes, it would not create an immediate need for changes to district facilities, she said.
“The policy change comes first, then you develop regulations on how you’ll follow the policy,” she said. “But there have been things happening lately — a growing number of suicides, for instance — that have caused people to think beyond what our current boundaries are. It’s good that people are talking about this.”