Superintendent Pledges to Help Gay Students in Fairfax County
Letter outlines proposals intended to foster safe, respectful learning environment
[FAIRFAX, VA] - Robert Rigby Jr., coordinator of the Fairfax County Safe Schools Coalition, said the county school board must still approve adding information about homosexuality to sex education curriculum.
Robert Rigby Jr. fielded three calls last week from Fairfax County Public School administrators offering concrete strategies to help curb anti-gay harassment there based on students' actual or perceived sexual orientation.
"One wanted to help develop a training class for staff on LGBTQ issues," said Rigby, an openly gay teacher and coordinator of the Fairfax County Safe Schools Coalition. "Another wanted to meet about ways to get optional materials for our Family Life Education curriculum approved."
A third school official called Rigby to discuss the procedures to follow so that books and other resources with gay-related themes could be placed in public school libraries at the 24 high schools in Fairfax County, Va. And Rigby is preparing gay-related resource guides that school guidance staff and psychologists there can distribute when gay youths and their families ask for them.
This broad effort to help gay students resulted from a pivotal meeting in April between Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech and three adult advocates for gay students.
Mary Shaw, a spokesperson for Fairfax County Public Schools, said Domenech sent Rigby a letter May 31 outlining the proposals he supports.
"Dr. Domenech pledged [in the letter] to make every effort to ensure that all students and employees are treated with respect and provided with a safe learning and working environment," she said. "Persons in charge of our special services department are going to be the contact for any issues that arise concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth."
Shaw said staff development classes offered to Fairfax County Public School employees would be adjusted to address gay-related issues.
In addition, she said the Fairfax County School Board is scheduled June 27 to hold a work session on the possibility of adding protection based on sexual orientation to the schools' non-discrimination policy for staff members. The current policy states that no student, employee or applicant for employment in the school system shall be denied benefits or discriminated against based on "age, race, color, sex, religion, national origin, marital status or handicapping condition."
"When the superintendent said he wanted to address this issue and bring about change," Rigby said, "he clearly meant it."
Domenech met in April with Rigby; Rhonda Buckner, executive director of the metropolitan Washington chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays; and Maryanne Warrick, a PFLAG member in Virginia who has a gay brother.
During the meeting, they told Domenech about "a crisis of harassment" facing gay students in Fairfax County.
Warrick, co-chair of PFLAG's Safe Schools Committee, said students have told her about being beaten up, having food thrown at them and being called names because their classmates either know or believe they are gay.
"The major complaint I heard from every single one of them was that teachers would not help," Warrick said.
Domenech agreed to assist gay students and their allies in various ways.
This help also includes initiating discussions with teachers about how to assist gay students, as well as letting conversations on this topic unfold in school assemblies. Domenech noted in his letter to Rigby, however, that decisions about workshops and assemblies that broached this topic would be made at the discretion of individual school principals. He also said any presentation on sexual topics would have to be reviewed and approved by the school district's Family Life Curriculum advisory council.
There are 238 public schools and about 160,000 students in Fairfax County, which is located west, and often to the right politically, of Arlington and Alexandria counties.
"We at PFLAG are coordinating a book drive in Fairfax County this fall at a private home," Warrick said. "We will be asking people who come to donate money to buy books." The goal is to give 10 books with gay-related themes to each of the 24 high schools in Fairfax County.
This latest effort to help gay students resulted from the Fairfax County School Board's 9-3 approval in May 2001 of a plan to update the Student Responsibilities & Rights Handbook to state that anti-gay harassment is not allowed.
Teachers began distributing the handbook and explaining the change to students in grades four through 12 in September.
The handbook used to state that it is against school policy to harass students based on race, religion, gender, creed, national origin, personal or physical attributes, disability, intellectual ability and "matters pertaining to sexuality."
Robert E. Frye, chair of the Student Services Committee, first suggested adding the clause "(including sexual orientation)" after the phrase about sexuality. Rigby and Frye said last year that students who are gay or believed to be gay were being harassed and occasionally school faculty members and others present did nothing to stop the harassment.
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Students now are required to sign a statement noting they have read the 30-page book, which also is given to their parents. Frye said violating the school district's harassment policy by engaging in disruptive or inappropriate behavior could result in a student's suspension for up to 10 days.
Rigby, who also is co-chair of the national capital area chapter of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, said the gay-related language needed to be more clearly spelled out in the handbook. He also said current changes being proposed to the Family Life Education curriculum to include gay-related information would require approval by the Fairfax County School Board and take about a year to accomplish.
"Where we go from there depends on what type of reaction we get this year," Rigby said.