The state school board backed away yesterday -- for at least the third time in as many years -- from explicitly protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment in Maryland's public schools.
The move came as a response to legislative -- and community -- fears that the policy's new wording would require the teaching of homosexuality in classrooms statewide, something school board members say it would not do.
State Sen. Delores G. Kelley, chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, wrote a letter to the board pointing out what she later called a "technical glitch" in the wording of the policy revision. When an anti-discrimination bill was approved by the General Assembly last year that banned bias against gays and lesbians, the bill emphasized that public schools are not required to promote any form of sexuality or include any sexual orientation in the curriculum.
School board Vice President Reginald L. Dunn said he has received more letters about the proposed policy than any other issue and feels as though he has heard from "the entire state of Maryland." In light of Kelley's letter, he said, "We're postponing the action to a future board meeting." There was little public discussion yesterday.
The proposed policy's intent, board members have said, is to keep schools safe for homosexual students, who are often a target because of their sexual orientation.
"We're not advocating the teaching of homosexual lifestyle," said board member Philip S. Benzil. "I just want these people not to be bullied, made to feel worse than they already feel. ... The agonies of adolescence are enough without this extra burden."
But the sexual-orientation provision was not written into an anti-discrimination policy. Instead it was tacked on to a policy called "Education that is Multicultural," which is designed to bring issues of cultural diversity into classroom teaching.
It puts sexual orientation in the same category of race and gender when discussing cultural groups that need to be taught about in the classroom, said Barbara Dezmon, who heads the steering committee of the Achievement Initiative for Maryland's Minority Students, a state-appointed group that deals with minority achievement issues.
She wrote a long letter to state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, explaining that she wants gay and lesbian students protected from harm. The letter also said she doesn't want the "Education that is Multicultural" policy to be weakened -- the proposed wording speaks of "tolerance and consideration of others" instead of curriculum and instruction -- or to bring in the hot-button issue of teaching about alternative lifestyles in the classroom.
Kelley said yesterday that she didn't mean for the board to delay its vote. Instead, she said, she wanted them to address the concerns she raised. "They have to decide if they're going forward with this or not," she said.
On Tuesday, the first day of the two-day school board meeting, several people addressed the board, most in support of the anti-harassment provisions.
"I don't see how anyone could argue against it," said Joe Berg, assistant editor of Gay Life newspaper in Baltimore. "One side is for fairness, diversity and safety for all students. The other side is for intolerance, inequity and harassment."
Doug Stiegler, director of the Family Protection Lobby, formerly the Maryland chapter of Moral Majority, is opposed to the proposed policy change. He said he is worried about the door that would be opened to teaching students "to celebrate homosexuality and about cross dressing." "This is getting beyond the needs of protecting people from name calling," he said.