Bellbrook school board removes discrimination protections for LGBTQ staff and students from policy

The Bellbrook-Sugarcreek school board approved changes to its policies Thursday that remove specific language for discrimination protections for LGBTQ staff and students, but vowed to revisit the policy in the future to accommodate stronger anti-bullying measures for those students.

Crowds of people showed up to Bellbrook-Sugarcreek’s five-hour long school board meeting, overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed changes.

Among about 20 proposed policy changes approved in bulk at Thursday’s school board meeting, which ranged from anti-tobacco measures to standards for the district’s armed Active Shooter Response Team, Bellbrook’s discrimination protections that cover students, teachers, and staff, would be modified, public documents show.

Protections against discriminatory harassment would remain, including those based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, religion, ancestry or genetic information.

The protection against harassment on the basis of sex formerly noted that this designation includes “sexual orientation and gender identity. ” This line has been struck through in multiple anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

Students and parents Thursday condemned the changes, saying it proves the board thinks Bellbrook’s LGBTQ students are unworthy of protection, and sends tacit approval to bullies that pick on gay kids, whether they intended to or not.

“I gotta be real, there’s a lot of bullying in this school,” said student Ethan Newell. “You’re writing the words that define the students’ lives. You’re writing a reality. You think it’s a piece of paper, to us it’s our reality.”

“Do we really want board leadership who’s already showing up to show that they’re incapable of serving their constituency? Their constituency who can’t even vote for them? We, as students, don’t get a say in this vote,” Newell said.

Of the roughly 40 people who spoke at Thursday’s school board meeting, many were students at Bellbrook High School. Of those, several were LGBTQ students who described harassment or bullying they already experience from other students.

Reagan Dailey, president of the Bellbrook Gay Straight Alliance, broke down in tears describing how someone had threatened to shoot up the club last year.

Word of the policy changes has already spread through the high school, students said.

“Everyone in this high school knows about this change, including those who would take advantage of it,” said freshman Xan Gott.

Only one person out of the 40 spoke in favor of the proposed changes.

Members of the board pushed back on the idea that the policy changes would open up LGBTQ students to harassment.

“There is no intent to diminish the protection or dignity of any student in our school system,” said board member Kevin Price. “To imply and conclude that the board is taking action to intentionally subject LGBTQ students to harassment is disingenuous. No protections are being removed.”

Ohio law is not entirely settled on LGBTQ discrimination protections. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that “on the basis of sex” includes sexual orientation and gender identity, when it comes to Title VII employment discrimination, meaning legally, school districts can’t discriminate against anyone for their sexual orientation or transgender status when it comes to employment, regardless of what their policy says.

Outside of employment, harassing or bullying behavior against students and staff is usually covered by other policies or codes of conduct, policy experts previously told the Dayton Daily News, although they may not specifically prohibit the behavior on the basis of race, sex, religion, and so on.

Board members did acknowledge the stories of bullying brought by students constituted a serious problem.

“Whether you’re straight, whether you’re gay, whether you’re trans, whether you are short or fat, we need to do better here in this arena,” board member Heidi Anderson said.

Discussion by board members centered around delineation of two sections of the school policy, one that aligns with federal and state statute, and another that the board itself controls. In the section concerning harassment, the strikeout occurs in the former, and is not specifically addressed in the latter.

Mutiple board members said their reasoning for the change was to be more aligned with the “existing legal landscape.” Price said his was to protect “females in matters of privacy and sports opportunities.”

Around midnight, the board approved an additional motion to revisit the second section of the policy, with input from students and teachers.

“To be clear, the ultimate decision will still have to remain with us,” board member Audra Dorn said. “However, I think we’re all best suited if we can come to a conclusion that satisfies the technicality that we were attempting to achieve here, and provides our students the feeling of protection that they have voiced.”

Expert Analysis

The changes won’t leave LGBTQ teachers and students without discrimination protections, experts say.

Organizations like the Ohio School Boards Association and the National School Boards Association provide base policies for school boards to follow. In general, there is a lot of diversity in local policies around LGBTQ issues, but the OSBA’s base policies are generally neutral on the subject, said Gamy Narvaez, policy consultant for the OSBA.

Beavercreek, Xenia and Kettering’s school board policies, which are very similar to Bellbrook’s, also currently prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Dayton’s school board policy, which comes from the OSBA, is largely neutral.

Many districts have chosen to adopt nondiscrimination policies or Title IX policies that prohibit individuals from being discriminated against “on the basis of sex,” Narvaez said.

“Some (districts) choose to specifically define sex in their policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity, and we offer help to districts looking for more information on how to draft those changes or what the law says regarding those changes,” Narvaez said. “Other districts choose to work with their board counsel to adopt policies that address discrimination on the basis of LGBTQ identity and go into detailed procedures for how to address names/pronouns, use of facilities, and more.”

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