"Whether a person agrees [with a student's sexual preference] or not, they don't have the right to take their feelings out on the children," Thomas adds. "I went through that growing up, and I know that if even one child is hurt or emotionally impaired because of the actions of a teacher, that's one too many."
Task-force members say the extent of the discrimination problem in schools is difficult to ascertain because many kids who suffer physical or verbal abuse by faculty don't lodge complaints. And if they do, the matter is often handled by administrators and not brought to the attention of the school board or law enforcement.
The city has had a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation on the books since 1989, and last year the City Council went on record in support of the state gay-rights bill, which took effect in October. However, city schools do not have any policies that specifically address treatment of gay and lesbian students (there are regulations regarding racial discrimination). Sexual orientation is covered in sensitivity training all that city employees, including teachers, undergo.
Current schools policy "addresses things like bullying and harassment overall," says Charlotte Wing, the school system's director of pupil services, but provisions expressly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation are under consideration. "It's not in place yet, but we are about to revise some parts" of the Safe Schools Action Plan, which governs in-school discipline, she says.
For their part, task-force members say they're not interested in seeing teachers get fired or sued for their personal beliefs--but they do want schools to ensure those beliefs won't be turned against students. Along with proposing rules changes, Thomas says he and Hughes plan to visit schools in the coming months to talk to faculty about sexual-orientation issues.
"This is not about figuring out who to jump on, but rather that we get some understanding," Thomas says. "Our goal is to let kids know that school is not just someplace you go to get educated, but someplace where people are open-minded and you can feel safe."
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