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Kanawha school board approves LGBT protections

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Kanawha school board approves LGBT protections
By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter, Charleston Gazette-Mail

The Kanawha County school board voted unanimously Thursday to add specific protections regarding sexual orientation to its cultural diversity and human relations policy.

The policy change, which didn’t receive any written comments after it was placed on 30-day public comment period last month, is generally aimed at protecting school employees from harassment, but it will also block discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in hiring, firing and promotion decisions, said Jim Withrow, the board’s general counsel.

The full impact of the change is unclear, considering related rules that are already in policies on both the local and state levels.

For instance, the West Virginia Board of Education unanimously adopted a new policy in 2011 protecting students statewide from bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, and Withrow said a section of local policy likely already extended to school employees protections from harassment based on those characteristics.

And Howard Seufer Jr., a Charleston attorney who has practiced school law for more than 30 years, has said the state grievance procedure bans any discrimination not based on an employee’s job duties or agreed to by that worker – though Withrow said the grievance procedure wouldn’t help a non-employee who applied for a position and was denied it.

Withrow said the local school board’s change Thursday will now block hiring discrimination. Ryan White – the board’s newest member, and the only current member who wasn’t involved in the 2009 vote to not include sexual orientation protections in the policy – said he brought the policy change up after being contacted by a constituent.

He said he wasn’t aware of the 2009 controversy, which included 200 comments on the board’s website and criticism from the socially conservative Family Policy Council of West Virginia. He said he simply asked school administrators to review local board policies over apparent inconsistencies.

On Thursday, White suggested to fellow board members that they also add the protections regarding sexual orientation and gender identity to the equal opportunity section of the cultural diversity and human relations policy. That section specifically states that the district “shall recruit, hire, train, and promote in all job titles without regard to” a list of characteristics, including race, age and religion. But it doesn’t mention sexual orientation or gender identity.

Board members instead opted to go ahead and approve the change already before them, and Withrow said he’ll get White’s proposed revision on the agenda for either the next meeting or the following one. That proposal must also go out on a 30-day public comment period.

Despite Withrow’s statement that Thursday’s change will now protect LGBT employees in employment situations, White said after the meeting he wants the protections also added to the equal opportunity section for consistency and to make clear to potential applicants that Kanawha offers those protections. “If someone comes in here and doesn’t see that language, whereas they see it in another school, they may say ‘I don’t want to work here,’” White said.

“And I don’t want that to happen, I want us to get the best teachers we possibly can.” White also said it would be an “administrative nightmare” if it were discovered that a city of Charleston ordinance protecting LGBT individuals in employment situations affected schools in the city but not other areas of the county.

Withrow said he hasn’t examined whether Charleston’s law affects the district, but he doubts it.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, the statewide civil rights advocacy organization dedicated to civil rights and fair treatment of LGBT West Virginians, said in a statement that the policy change demonstrates that the Kanawha County school system is an environment where all students and employees, including those who are LGBT, will be treated with respect and dignity.

“In a world where over 90% of LGBT youth report being bullied and harassed at school, this policy change signals to LGBT students and employees that they are a valuable part of the community and are equally deserving of protection from discrimination,” Schneider said.

Along with specifically mentioning the gay rights protections, Thursday’s change crosses out the phrase saying that people must be respected regardless of having any “status protected by federal, state or local law.” Instead, the policy now requires respect for individuals regardless of any “characteristic.”

Unlike for “protected classes” such as race and age, there is no overarching federal or state law banning discriminating against individuals based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper has said a law the county passed years ago to ban discrimination among its employees for any reason doesn’t affect school district workers.

Withrow said Thursday’s policy change was a good move. “With 2015, it’s time to get right,” he said.