The Little Rock School Board may wish it wasn’t news, but by virtue of its apparent rarity, the board’s recent vote to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is definitely news.
Not that it made news in the conventional sense. Although board members publicly discussed the policy change in regular board meetings in October and November, the only public comment, according to meeting minutes, came at the October meeting from elementary school teacher Mary Ann Hansen, who commended the board for considering changing the policy to include sexual orientation, and asked them to consider adding gender identity as well. They did, and unanimously approved the revised policy, with no discussion, at a meeting Nov. 17. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s next-day stories about the meeting didn’t mention it.
Board member Tony Rose proposed the change as part of a systematic review of district policies for updates and clarifications. The non-discrimination policy, he said, needed both updating — changing the word “sex” to “gender” — and expanding.
“I also thought in the dawning days of the 21st century we needed to make sure it’s enshrined in policy that we’re not going to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said. “I’m a very strong advocate of civil rights for all, and that includes making sure no one is deprived of any rights based on who they sleep with or are interested in sleeping with.”
Board President Michael Daugherty said he thought the change was “absolutely necessary,” so that no one could mistake what the district’s policy is. “By doing it this way, it’s specific,” he said.
Since the start of the board’s discussions, Rose said, he hasn’t gotten any negative comments, “probably because we dealt with it in a low-key manner,” and people who might have been opposed might not have heard about it.
“I recognize that a lot of people feel justified in discriminating against people based on sexual orientation, but they’re wrong,” he said.
Rose said he didn’t look into whether other districts in the state had added sexual orientation and gender identity to their nondiscrimination policies because on this issue, it wasn’t important. “We needed to do what was right,” he said.
If he had, though, the answer would have been a resounding no. Not in North Little Rock or Pulaski County — and probably nowhere else in the state either, said Dan Farley, executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association. They’re not required to by law or court precedent — the standard for getting into the ASBA’s board-policy blueprint, which many of the state’s school districts have used as a foundation for their district’s policies.
If nothing else, though, gay, lesbian and transgendered students are guaranteed the right to organize. The Equal Access Act of 1984, first proposed to ensure student religious groups had access to school facilities for meetings, says schools that allow any non-curricular clubs must allow all that are student-initiated. Also, according to a study published by the National School Boards Association, three states — California, Minnesota and Connecticut — specifically outlaw discrimination based on a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Farley said he wouldn’t anticipate other school districts in Arkansas following Little Rock’s lead anytime soon.
“I think it’ll probably be something where people will say ‘That’s Little Rock’s thing to do,’ ” he said. “I applaud them for being brave enough to do that.”
The new policy
The Little Rock School District’s new non-discrimination policy:
“The commitment of the Little Rock School District to the most fundamental principles of academic freedom, equality of opportunity, and human dignity requires that decisions involving students and employees be based on individual merit and be free from discrimination in all its forms.
“It is the policy of the Board of Education that there will be no discrimination because of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity, age, national origin, or handicap/disability in the placement, instruction, and guidance of pupils; the employment, assignment, training, or promotion of personnel; the provision and maintenance of physical supplies and equipment; the development and implementation of the curriculum, including the activities program; and in all matters relating to the instruction, supervision, administration and Board policy development.”