The Berkeley Board of Education approved a policy to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and their families from discrimination and harassment in the Berkeley Unified School District for the first time Wednesday.
The earlier Nondiscrimination/Harassment Policy included most subgroups but did not specifically reference gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students or their families, district officials told the Planet.
The new expanded policy specifically addresses “gender differences, including transgender and gender non-conforming students and guards against bias and stereotyping of students based on gender.”
Additionally, it “encourages curriculum, instruction and activities that are inclusive of all types of students and their families, and prohibits harassment in any form.”
“We had an old, somewhat vague anti-harassment policy that did mention sexual orientation, that went back 15 years ago,” said School Board Vice President John Selawsky. “But there was no reference to anti-bullying programs or a curriculum development to include all types of students and families. The new policy itemizes some of these concerns. We are definitely not waiting for a crisis to develop this.”
The earlier policy did not identify a district person or a complaint process to protect students against bullying, or even state that harassment would be subject to discipline.
“I am not aware of any other school district that specifically encourages, as a preventive measure, activities and curriculum that teach kids to respect family diversity and gender identity,” said Judy Appel, executive director of Our Family Coalition, a Bay Area-based gay and lesbian family support group, and mother of two Oxford Elementary School students.
“In California, there are laws that require schools to protect against discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and identity, but that doesn’t mean everybody is doing that in practice,” she said.
Appel, who worked on a district-wide task force to draft the policy, said that the amendment would not force a biological girl who thinks of herself as a boy to use the girls’ bathroom.
“Berkeley Unified is very welcoming to gays and lesbians, but I started hearing about anti-gay comments in the schools some time back,” she said. “None of the teachers were talking about family diversity. In general there wasn’t any uniform set of skills to combat stereotypes and teach diversity. A group of us decided to meet every month last year and one of the things that came up from parents was a policy that showed support ... We felt that kids weren’t seeing gay and lesbian families reflected in the classroom or learning to respect kids who would themselves realize they were lesbian or gay. The teachers had some fears and said that they would like to have some support from the district.”
Nine-year-old Kobi, Appel’s son, told the Planet that he had never been teased at Oxford for having lesbian parents but had heard kids use the word “gay” as a slur.
“My having two moms doesn’t affect me in any way,” he said. “It doesn’t make my family different from my friends’ families.”
“They learn to respond quickly to different questions,” said Appel. “When people tell them ‘you must have a dad,’ they say ‘I don’t have a dad, I have a donor.’”
Jen Rader, who, with her partner Barb Wenger, has two children (Ben, 6, and Elijah, 8) in Thousand Oaks Elementary School, said that the policy would create a safe and welcoming environment for all families.
“Teachers will have the skills to answer questions not just about gay and lesbian families but multiracial, foster and adopted families,” she said. “If we make schools safe at the elementary level, then it will bear fruit in middle and high school.”
Most gay and lesbian parents said harassment and bullying took place in the schools’ playground.
“It’s possible that the new policy will stop that but it will require a lot of diligent policing,” said Ed Valenzuela, who adopted Malcolm X first-grader Kiki seven years ago with his partner Gary Walker.
“Berkeley is very diverse, but two-dad families are definitely a minority here. There are a lot more lesbian mothers with children,” he said. “When things like Mother’s Day are celebrated at the school it would help if teachers are a little sensitive and turn it into a family event instead ... A couple of times Kiki has mentioned instances when a kid or two have come up to her and said ‘you have two dads, gross.”
“That’s so gay” is another slur used in schools which gay and lesbian parents find offensive.
District superintendent Michele Lawrence told the Planet that the district had no way of knowing the exact number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students or families in the Berkeley public schools.
“We don’t specifically ask questions about sexual orientation,” she said. “Our concern is to make certain that kids are sensitive to mixed students or families ... We want all children to feel safe on a school campus.”