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Organizational Strategies for Having "Sexual Orientation" Added to a Local Non-Discrimination Policy
Marilyn Goldfarb, March 29, 1999 -- The following piece will explain the history and the grass-roots organizational strategies applied to the as-yet unresolved issue of adding "sexual orientation" to the current non-discrimination policy in the State College Area School District.

Background:
State College is a college town of approximately 60,000 residents, half of whom are students at Penn State University in Centre county in central Pennsylvania. Though one might expect a university town to be liberal in political leanings, the State College resident community contains an extremely vocal, religious right sub-community which can and has intimidated the local school board on many issues.
    Many students and teachers in the local public school system have observed that gay or lesbian young people, or those merely perceived as gay or lesbian, have been harassed, verbally abused, physically harmed, or have had their personal property destroyed because of their real or perceived sexual orientation. It has also been observed by students and teachers that adults have been present in abusive situations and have not always intervened. Furthermore, there is no protection offered in the existing employment policies to protect any gay or lesbian teacher from being dismissed merely because of his/her sexual orientation.
    The school board's current non-discrimination policy states that harassment or discrimination will not be tolerated for the usual list of protected categories, i.e. race, religion, ethnicity, disability, etc., but the policy does not specify "sexual orientation."

 
 


History of the Issue and the Mobilization of the Right:
    About a year and a half ago, the district administrators were organizing an in-service day for teachers around diversity issues. A district diversity committee planned a series of presentations and workshops on a wide variety of diversity topics, including two workshops to help teachers understand some of the difficulties facing gay and lesbian youth. A few members of the diversity committee leaked information to their religious congregations, and it caused a local uproar in the religious right quarters.
   Close to the time of the leaks, the Superintendent was asked to attend a meeting of a local chapter of a nationally recognized Christian Right organization, "Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE)", to address its concerns about the district's sex education program. This organization's stated mission is  "to implement our Lord's plan to bring public education back under the control of the Christian community" by "taking complete control of local school boards." When the superintendent arrived, he was blindsided by the group's fury over the scheduled gay/lesbian teacher training workshops. He was requested to remove the speakers, and ultimately agreed to the group's request.  Incidentally, the two speakers are university faculty members, and are published national experts on the problems faced by gay youth. They are both, themselves, gay, and have been frequently targeted in letters to the local media, as "homosexual life-style advocates", and pushers of "the gay agenda."
    Letters to the editor abounded in the local paper, mostly from the religious right, misrepresenting the focus of the workshops as "homosexual advocacy" and erroneously stating that they didn't want their tax dollars spent forcing teachers to listen to gay propaganda (teachers selected their own schedule for the day based on their interests and professional concerns.) A few letters to the editor were from teachers denouncing the cancellation of workshops germane to their professional development.
    Shortly thereafter, a concern about the speaker cancellation was raised at a school board meeting, and the board overturned the superintendent's decision. The speakers were re-invited.
    The In-service proceeded without incident. Many teachers who attended the gay/lesbian workshops expressed very positive comments about the need for the information received, and how much they had personally benefited the session.
    A few weeks after the in-service, the school district was presented with a petition with 700 signatures from people protesting the workshops that had already happened. The text of the petition included language that stated that the petition signers believed that they had a right to public schooling that was in harmony with their moral beliefs.
    Investigations of that petition uncovered that signatures were gathered from a clip-out coupon from a local religious right publication called "The Communicant", and that approximately 300 of those signatures were from people living outside of the school district.
    A few weeks later (in late spring of 1998), a school board member proposed that "sexual orientation" be included as a protected category in the school district's non-discrimination policy, which would be included in personnel policies. Board members were not prepared for the proposal, and recommended fact-finding, a possible local issues forum, and a public hearing.

Grassroots Organizing and Strategies:
    As soon as the issue was raised at the school board, a small group of concerned parents, teachers, and community members who knew each other decided to work together to make this policy change a reality. They got together and brainstormed a list of local activists to tap for membership and for strategy assistance. The group enlarged to a leadership Core of 8 and many peripheral members who agreed to do various legwork tasks.
    The group first decided to launch a petition drive (see Appendix #1, the petition), but only had five days to make a self imposed deadline of the next school board meeting. With a very intensive deadline commitment, the group targeted some obvious places for support; i.e., the Quakers, the Unitarians, the local synagogue, other friendly congregations, the local ACLU chapter, some liberal and non-sectarian university organizations, etc. Without even taking to the streets, the group had collected 1000 signatures in five days. It was presented to the school board at its targeted time.
    A data-base was made from the petition signers, and the leadership Core of the Non-Discrimination Group (NDG) decided to continue to tap this group for active support by e-mail or U.S. mail. Furthermore, the Core brainstormed a list of prominent citizens (university educators, psychologists, journalists, business people, etc.) who were known for their beliefs in social justice to be courted by the group personally for public support of this policy.
    The group, at its own expense, sent a mailing to the 1000 petition signers (See Appendix #2) suggesting ways in which they could actively help on the issue. The group opened a post office box in which to receive responses. The group consciously decided to not publicize that there was an active group working on the issue, because in this town, it would expose the group to organized attack in the local media by religious right groups. Furthermore, tactically, it might have value as a surprise that the opposition to homophobia was getting organized.
    The mailing received about 100 responses , and the Core sent another mailing to this sub-group. To those who indicated that they would write letters to school board members, we enclosed some strategical tips to include in their letters, and included board member mailing labels. Some of the more experienced grassroots people thought that the way to get the biggest response was to make life very easy for supporters. For those who offered to write letters to the local paper, we orchestrated the timing of their letter send-offs, so that the paper would receive them in a wave, rather than all in a lump. We asked all writers to send us copies (to the PO box) so that we could track whether or not the local paper was being even-handed in what they chose to publish.
    The school board then initiated the creation of a Local Issues Forum (modeled after the National Issues Forum), which is a full day discussion by interested citizens on a controversial topic. These Forums are designed to promote civil discourse on difficult issues, and to help divided communities to find common ground. A large group meeting defines an issue, the large group is broken into several small groups, a trained facilitator is provided for each small group, and the group examines four positions on the issue, ranging from far left to far right.
    The School Board called for a Task Force to work on the Forum, inviting a wide variety of voices from the community. The Core of the Non-Discrimination Group solicited supporters of the policy , including gay people, supportive clergy, and supportive citizens, to join the Task Force and were consequently well-represented. That Task Force had to decide whether or not to adapt a "canned" Forum Booklet or to build its own from the ground up. It chose the latter. As a result, the Forum was delayed until February 1999. The booklet with the four positions was released to the local news media a week before the event (see Appendix #3 - the booklet.)
    The Forum took place on February 27th, 1999 and was attended by approximately 150 people. The large group was broken into 15 smaller groups for deliberation on the four positions and an attempt to find common ground. At the end of the day, each group reported out to the whole. The results were that all groups agreed that school should be a nurturing and safe place for all young people; however, only two groups reached consensus that the policy should be adopted. In informal chats with liberal participants, they uniformly stated most people in their groups had genuinely come for discourse and enlightenment, and that one or two members in their discussion groups actively blocked consensus. The groups that agreed to the policy felt that the opposition and undecided group members had been persuaded by testimony from teachers or students in their group. I heard that only one group had difficulty remaining civil.
    Three weeks later, the school board scheduled a public hearing. The Non-Discrimination Group sent another mailing to the 1000 petition signers encouraging their involvement (see appendix #4 - the 2nd letter.) The group also personally called prominent community members soliciting support.
    The board had people who wished to speak submit a request in writing for a 3 minute time slot. The board then held a lottery to narrow the list to 30 speakers, and offered the general audience some two minute speaking slots, also by lottery.
    The hearing was held March 15th, 1999. The views of those in favor of the policy ranged from teachers' and students' testimony of young people being harmed by harassment and discrimination, psychologists' testimony that homosexuality is neither a sickness nor a choice, proponents of social justice in general, and from parents who want their children to grow up in schools that practice respectful behavior and tolerance.The opposition's viewpoint ranged from fear of homosexual advocacy, fear of this policy opening the door to gay curriculum, revulsion of "abomination," a representation of homosexuality as a "disorder" which deserves no special treatment, a representation of homosexuals as pedophiles, a fear of furthering the "gay agenda", and a fear of homosexual recruitment.
    Of the thirty pre-scheduled speakers, 18 were for adoption of the policy, 9 were against, 2 offered a compromise option, and one was absent. The speakers from the floor were 9 in favor, 7 opposed.
    The Board announced that it had not set a date to vote on this issue, as it was still collecting and analyzing the data from the February Forum. It is likely that it will stall the vote until after the May primary elections. This issue has further mobilized the right to put up five candidates for the school board in the May primary elections. Some financial backing for these candidates is coming from national religious right organizations, such as Citizens for Excellence in Education.
    From rumored conversations with various board members in the aftermath of these public discussions, all members appear convinced that the problem is real and needs to be addressed, but that they are not necessarily ready to do so through this particular policy addition. We are all waiting for the outcome as of this writing, March 29,1999.

What We've Learned From the Process:
    Some form of organization is imperative to direct the voice of social justice, as the religious right capitalizes on its regular weekly meetings at church. The people on our Core group are highly active people with very demanding jobs and a wide variety of social justice issues to contend with. At first, we met weekly, then biweekly, but soon it became impossible to meet regularly because of career, political, and personal demands. In the future, I would try to seek out and solicit retired people to consider leadership on issues like this.
    Furthermore, the opposition may be small, or even medium sized, but because of their organization, they appear larger, and they are extremely vocal. I would have, in retrospect, continued the petition drive to enlarge our data base. From our experience, we got active responses from about 10% of our data base. We need more numbers being visible and vocal.
    The most persuasive testimony on this particular issue came from students and teachers, who made clear that the issue was real, frequent, and severe (see appendix #5 - teacher testimony delivered at the hearing.)
    The Local Issues Forum is an excellent vehicle to begin dialogue on hot-button issues, and I hope anyone considering working on this issue would use the Forum Booklet as a basis for opening the dialogue. This booklet was a six month collaborative project - but this wheel's been invented for use by anyone working on this issue.
    All of the appendices of this case history are provided to serve as samples or models of work done by the Non-Discrimination Group and the Forum Task Force and are available to be used by any community.

Appendix #1- the petition:
    Petition to the Board of Directors of the State College Area School District in support of full non-discrimination policy
    We, the undersigned citizens of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, believe that is the responsibility of the system of public education to uphold the highest ideals and values of a democratic society. This includes the rights of all citizens to equal protection under the law, and of all children to be educated in an environment which protects these rights. We urge the SCASD to adopt and enforce policies and procedures consistent with the PA Dept. of Education Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators, which states that: "Professional educators shall exhibit consistent and equitable treatment of students, fellow educators, and parents. They shall respect the civil rights of all and not discriminate on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, culture, religion, sex or sexual orientation, marital status, age, political beliefs, socioeconomic status, disabling conditions, or vocational interests."
    Name Address E-mail

Appendix #2 - first communication to petition signers:
Dear Citizen for Equal Rights,
    In April, you signed a petition asking the school board to add "sexual orientation" to be a protected group in its non-discrimination policy. We, a group of concerned educators, citizens and parents, feel that it essential that the School Board do so, as we know that young people are being harassed and tormented. In the absence of a full non-discrimination policy, these behaviors go unaddressed. Furthermore, some excellent teachers fear for their jobs.
    The issue will be put to a public forum in September; the board will vote on it in October. We know that the opposition has a strong organization with funding, and we know that unless we pull our resources together, we will be defeated.
    If you believe strongly in this issue, there are a number of ways that you could help. Please consider the options below, tear off the bottom portion, and send it back to us.
        ****************************************           
Name_______________________
Address_____________________
E-mail _____________________
Phone ______________________

1. I would be willing to write a letter to the school board.
2. I would be willing to write a letter to the CDT.
3. I am willing to attend the public forum as a presence on the side of an inclusive non-discrimination policy.
4. I am willing to speak at the forum in favor of an inclusive non-discrimination policy.

Send reply to:
Non-discrimination Group (NDG)
P.O.Box 545
Boalsburg, PA 16827

or e-mail reply to:
ndp4scasd@juno.com

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