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Organizational Strategies for Having "Sexual Orientation" Added to a Local Non-Discrimination Policy continued

Appendix # 3 - Public Issues Forum Booklet:

Sexual Orientation and the Schools Issue


About Local Issues Forums and Public Deliberation
    While the democratic processes of local government offer many opportunities for citizen input, they may not provide all that citizens want or that democracy needs. Local issues forums seek what citizens often find lacking in local government. Citizens want, and democracy needs, more kinds of interaction than public hearings and letters to the editor provide.
    In a Local Issues Forum citizens talk with each other, not to public officials. Public deliberation emphasizes listening and questioning, not making statements or debating. Using Issue Booklets, which identify an issue and present different perspectives on it, forums explore disagreements in order to increase public understanding. Public deliberation can help citizens establish common ground in spite of deep differences of opinion and belief.
    For the past several years the Public Issues Forum Steering Committee of Centre County (an independent and broadly representative organization of citizens) has created special task forces each year to conduct a Local Issues Forum on some matter of public concern. The popularity of these forums suggests that they make an important contribution to community democracy.

Why a Forum On Sexual Orientation and the Schools?
    Over the past year, two specific events in the State College Area School District led to considerable public controversy related to sexual orientation. The first controversy involved an in-service program for teachers with workshops related to sexual orientation. The second controversy, as yet unresolved, concerns a proposal to add sexual orientation to race, religion and other protected categories in the district's non-discrimination policy.
    At its spring meeting, the PIF Steering Committee concluded that public deliberation in the context of a Local Issues Forum might make a positive contribution to the community on this divisive issue. An LIF Task Force was formed to explore the possibility of a forum. We want to emphasize that, while events within the SCASD created the circumstances to which this forum is a response, the forum is organized by an entirely independent body and has been structured, organized and scheduled solely by the Local Issue Forum Task Force.
    The first job of the Task Force, which began meeting in July, was to decide whether or not to organize a forum. Three concerns were paramount.
    1. Is there a larger issue than the specific policy proposal currently before the SCASD Board, an issue suitable for deliberation? We decided the larger issue is how should the schools respond to issues of sexual orientation, an issue that involves curriculum, instruction, counseling and personnel.
    2. Is this issue limited to the SCASD or is it county-wide? We decided that while events in the SCASD had triggered the controversy, the larger issue is one of concern to all school districts.
    3. Can the Task Force gain sufficiently broad representation to produce an issue booklet and conduct a forum which will fairly represent the major concerns expressed by citizens of the county? Thanks to a high level of interest from many parts of the community, our efforts to achieve broad representation were successful. The expanded Task Force quickly concluded that writing a booklet would take several months and scheduled the forum for February 27, 1999.

    This booklet is the product of a six-month collaborative effort involving more people in the actual writing than has been the case for any previous Local Issues Forum booklet. The Task Force has tried to represent fairly the diversity of voices in the community and to treat all with respect. Please give this booklet and the four choices presented here your careful consideration before joining us for the forum on Saturday, February 27, 1999, 9:00am - 2:30pm at Park Forest Middle School.

Sexual Orientation and the Schools
Sexual orientation has become an increasingly visible and divisive issue in the  90s. In Centre County during the past year, the State College Area School District has twice been the focus of public debate related to this issue. Citizens have deeply felt and very different concerns on this issue. Some are concerned that homosexuals and bisexuals are subject to mistreatment in the schools because of their sexual orientation. Some  are concerned that unacceptable sexual orientations and practices are being legitimized by school policies. Some are concerned that non-heterosexual orientations are not respected. Some are concerned that such private and personal matters are even discussed in the schools.
    All citizens probably agree that the fundamental mission of the schools should the the education of children. What that education should include and how it should relate to the issues and concerns surrounding sexual orientation is what this forum is about.
    To facilitate deliberative dialogue, this booklet lays out four choices or perspectives on the issue of sexual orientation and the schools. The language of these choices  as emerged out of six months of discussion and difficult work by members of the task force, individuals with deep and wide-ranging differences of opinion on the issue. Our hope is that these four choices will provide a helpful starting point for our deliberations and will  enable us to establish areas of shared concern, some common ground underlying  our many differences.

A Note on Terminology:
    As with many controversial topics, terminology itself becomes a subject for debate. Sexual preference, sexual orientation, homosexuality: each term has its advocates and detractors. Because "sexual orientation" seems to have gained the widest currency in official use, in public laws and organizational policies, we have adopted that term in our title and introduction . However, since the various viewpoints expressed in the four choices outlined below prefer different terminology, in the presentation of each choice we have used the terminology which seems truest to it. While we recognize the significance of these terminological issues, we hope to focus our deliberations on the underlying concerns.
    Simply in order to talk to each other we must be as clear as possible about even the most contested terminology. Specifically we need to clarify what we mean by term sexual orientation . Throughout this document, sexual orientation refers to heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality.
    Of course the term sexual orientation is sometimes used with referents and connotations other than those communicated by the very objective sounding definition above.  This wide range of meanings will undoubtedly occur in the forum deliberations based  on this booklet. Indeed, we depend on you to raise the issues that concern you during the forum.

Choice 1
Stop Discrimination and Harassment Based On Sexual Orientation

    Parents send their children to school for an education; some students, however, face discrimination and harassment based on others' perceptions of their sexual orientation. Staff sometimes experience similar treatment. Fear is not conducive to education.
    Advocates for Choice 1 believe that in order to provide a safe, secure and nurturing environment for all students the schools should take strong action to prohibit harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation. The necessary policies must be widely publicized and strictly enforced.

What Can Be Done?
    1. Sexual orientation should be added to the list of protected categories on school nondiscrimination policies.
    2. Schools must establish guidelines for unacceptable discriminatory or harassing behavior regarding sexual orientation. These guidelines should apply to all faculty, staff and students, and should include clear consequences for violations, including suspension and firing for repeated and flagrant violations.
    3. Disrespectful and prejudicial language that is focused on an individual's sexual orientation must not be permitted.
    4. Training sessions for staff and informational sessions for students should include details on school policies pertaining to sexual orientation. These policies should be publicized for the school, community and parents.

In Support of Choice 1:
    1. Harassment and violence toward people based on their sexual orientation is a serious problem in the schools.
    2. The school has an important role to play in prohibiting discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation.
    3. Sexual orientation is not a personal characteristic under an individual's control and is, therefore, worthy of protection from discrimination.
    4. The school needs to protect staff and students from disrespectful and prejudicial language to create a climate conducive to learning.
    5. Education and communication  are keys to preventing discrimination and harassment.

Opposed to Choice 1:
    1. Existing school policies on inappropriate speech and conduct are sufficient to protect students, and do not require a specific focus on sexual orientation.
    2. Sexual orientation is not an unchangeable characteristic like race or ethnicity and is undeserving of special rights and protections offered by existing civil rights legislation and non-discrimination policies.
    3. There are less onerous ways of reducing verbal and physical harassment than by infringing on the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech.
    4. The recommended actions will focus inappropriate attention on deviant sexuality.
    5. These actions fail to address the underlying problems of prejudice and intolerance regarding sexual orientation.

Choice 2
Keep Sexual Orientation Out of Public School Policy

    Choice 2 advocates believe that sexual orientation is not an appropriate focus for public school policy. They acknowledge that sexual orientation may be a concern of individual students and staff, but suggest that it is a private matter and not a valid subject for the classroom or the school policy manual.  Private matters should be kept private.
    Choice 2 supporters acknowledge the existence of different sexual orientations but believe the schools should return discussion of sexual ethics to the family, religious community, and other social institutions.

What Can Be Done?
    1. Sexual orientation should not be added to the list of protected categories on school non-discrimination policies.
    2. The school district should adopt a policy of neutrality on issues relating to sexual orientation.
    3. Curriculum materials should deal with homosexuality sparingly, if at all, and should avoid advocacy.
    4. The privacy of staff and students should be respected. Inquiries regarding the sexual orientation of students or staff members should be discouraged.

In Support of Choice 2:
    1. Policies that focus on sexual orientation are not age-appropriate for the overwhelming majority of students.
    2. Education, not the agendas of special interest groups, should be the primary focus of public school policy.
    3. Children tend to be disinterested in issues of sexual orientation. If the topic isn't discussed, children won't worry about it.
    4. Staff, students and members of the community often hold deep-seated convictions on sexual ethics and morality. Those values need not be challenged in the public school context.

Opposed to Choice 2:
    1. This choice does not adequately address the very real harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
    2. A school cannot remain neutral on an issue involving the well-being of students.
    3.. Ignoring a problem won't make it go away. Children are not indifferent to issues of sexuality.
    4. Not all parents or religious communities are willing to deal with these issues, so the school should.

Choice 3
Teach Respect for All Sexual Orientations

    Underlying the fears of lesbian, gay and bisexual staff and students is a widespread lack of understanding and respect for one's sexual orientation as a legitimate component of individual identity. In society, this lack of understanding and respect  has manifested itself in brutal physical attacks, repressive legislation, and public stereotyping and maligning of lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals.
    The schools need to aim for more than preventing discrimination and harassment. As part of building communities in which differences are respected, schools should take the lead in building a more respectful climate  for all sexual orientations and the community at large.

What Can Be Done?
    1. Sexual orientation should be added to the list of protected categories on school nondiscrimination policies.
    2. Policies against all discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation should be publicized and enforced.
    3. The curriculum should include age-appropriate materials and activities respect for all sexual orientations.
    4. Workshops should be provided for staff as well as for interested members of the community to encourage understanding and respect for all orientations.
    5. Students should be exposed to positive role models of various sexual orientations.

In Support of Choice 3:
    1. Heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality are all healthy, normal sexual expressions.
    2. Educational programs and policies stressing acceptance will reduce bias, harassment and violence.
    3. The public schools are appropriate forums for discussing sexual orientation issues. Schools need to be proactive in dealing with a significant issue that affects many families.
    4. Students need to know they are not alone and are included in all school activities and programs regardless of their sexual orientation.

Opposed to Choice 3:
    1. This option ignores serious health dangers associated with certain sexual practices.
    2. Non-heterosexual behaviors are destructive of family and social bonds.
    3. It is inappropriate for schools to promote sexual practices and expressions opposed by many students and their families.
    4. Focusing on sexual issues in the schools risks polarizing the school and wider community.

Choice 4
Reinforce Traditional Values Regarding Sexuality

    Choice 4 proponents believe that schools have failed in their responsibility to teach the prevailing values and traditions of the communities they serve. In the area of sexuality, some school administrators and educators seem too willing to accept the latest politically  correct notion of appropriate sexual education and behavior. This approach ignores principals of morality and ethics which have served societies well for centuries.
    Choice 4 supporters believe that it is appropriate and necessary for the public schools to teach, model and encourage the traditional family values and heterosexual norms of the local community they serve.

What Can Be Done?
    1. Sexual orientation should not be added to the list of protected categories on school non-discrimination policies.
    2. The traditional sexual standard of monogamous heterosexual marriage should be honored and respected in school policy and the classroom.
    3. The curriculum should include materials and activities devoted to building respect for traditional family values and heterosexual norms.
    4. In selecting special programming for students, efforts should be made to expose them to community achievers who support and model traditional sexual values.
    5. Efforts should be made to hire and promote school staff who support and model traditional family values and heterosexual norms.

In Support of Choice 4:
    1. A commitment to the preservation of traditional values will enhance relationships among the vast majority of parents, students and educators.
    2. Prevailing values in almost every community include respect for the individual and the traditional family.
    3. Schools exist to serve the family and the community, not the other way around.
    4. Homosexuality is unnatural, immoral and unhealthy.  Special recognition or protection should not be provided by the school for self-identified homosexuals.

Opposed to Choice 4:
    1. Schools are supposed to foster learning, not uniformity. Searching for truth may mean challenging traditional notions.
    2. Refusing to recognize and respect diversity does not serve the best interest of students and undermines the traditional value of respect for all persons.
    3. Making an issue of sexual orientation will create unproductive conflict and interfere with education.
    4. Prevailing values may not be the best values.
    5. Encouraging traditional values may result in a lack of acceptance for those with different views.

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