Parents Object to Move to Protect Gay Students
[MARYLAND] - A proposal that would prohibit the harassment of homosexual students in Maryland schools is under fire from some parent groups, who say it will allow very young children to be taught about sex.
The proposal, now being considered by the Maryland State Board of Education, would include sexual orientation as a factor in multicultural education.
Philip S. Benzil, the state board member who introduced it, said he is not willing to tolerate any attacks on students because of their sexual orientation.
"What I want to see is a policy that says every student, regardless of what they are, will be safe at school," Mr. Benzil said. Intolerable behavior against homosexual students, he said, includes ?mocking, isolation and exclusion from social groups," among other things.
However, he added, the school system has "no intent to infuse an attempt to teach people to be differently sexual or deal with that type of thing."
Critics of the policy such as Doug Stiegler, executive director of the Woodstock, Md.-based Family Protection Lobby, says children will need to be educated on what homosexuality is in order to understand what words and terms they should not use. He said some students who may use certain words without realizing their connotations may be needlessly targeted by the policy.
"Most children in kindergarten and pre-K are not emotionally and mentally prepared to talk about sexual behavior," said Mr. Stiegler whose group includes members with children in public schools. The group has made two presentations this year before the board of education against the proposal.
The policy change was scheduled for a vote at the June 25-26 board meeting but has been put on hold because of a procedural delay, school officials said. If the state board passes it, members would await a decision from Superintendent Nancy Grasmick on how it should be implemented, Mr. Benzil said.
A similar proposal was put before the school board in 1999 but scrapped following widespread protest from conservative groups and legislators. In 2001, Mr. Benzil introduced a proposal that was later withdrawn and presented again this year with changes.
Last year, Maryland passed legislation that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation over public accommodations, housing and employment. On the demand of some legislators, the bill was amended to emphasize that public schools are not required to promote any form of sexuality or include sexual orientation in the curriculum.
"It was not the intention of the state legislation that such regulations be imposed on the school system," said Sen. Leo Green, Prince George's Democrat.
School-system officials insist that the latest version of the policy is just a safety measure and will not encroach on classroom instruction.
Three school districts in the state have policies that prohibit harassment of students based on sexual orientation. Montgomery and Howard counties were joined last week by the Anne Arundel County public schools system, which voted to protect homosexual students from harassment. The District, Fairfax County and Alexandria have language in their student handbooks that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
"We were just bringing our policies in line with federal and state laws," said Anne Arundel interim schools Superintendent Kenneth P. Lawson.
Synthia Shilling, an attorney for the county's schools system, said they were still defining what such harassment would constitute but added that it would fit "the general description of harassment, like calling names." She said that while specifics have not yet been crafted, but schools would educate children on what constitutes harassment of gays and lesbians, and consider the fact that some children might use a term that was offensive to homosexuals without understanding it.
Supporters of the new policy, such as the Safe Schools Coalition, say the state policy is vital to helping homosexual students feel safer at school.
"If someone uses the 'N' word at school, teachers intervene immediately. But if a gay or lesbian child is called names, teachers rarely do anything about it," said Lawrence Jacobs, co-chairman of the group's Montgomery County arm.
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