After an hour of discourse, the USD 383 school board gave final approval in a 5-2 vote on Wednesday to including sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination policy.
The two categories would be included in a statement in the district’s student and employee handbooks that already protects against discrimination based such things as race and religion.
Multiple board members said that after the motion passed with a 4-2 vote last month on its first reading, they received many emails either in support or opposition to the policy. They said they appreciate the feedback, but they said some of it stemmed from confusion.
Board president Curt Herrman said he wanted to clear up some misunderstandings about what the policy does.
“It’s not about our bullying policy or curriculum, and this policy will not be front and center in our schools and influence or (confuse) our students, and it’s not teaching. We’re not teaching anything about sexual preference or gender identity instead of math, reading or science,” he said.
Herrman previously had said the non-discrimination item came up on the board’s agenda after a couple incidents in the last two years.
In one of them, a transgender student committed suicide, and Herrman said harassment at school was a contributing factor.
In the other, a student who was president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes club came out as gay.
The student stepped down from his position after the vice president and her parent looked up the by-laws that said being a gay officer for the organization wasn’t allowed.
Herrman said the student’s parents asked the board to consider the non-discrimination statement after the student graduated.
The proposal was initiated by Vice President Leah Fliter and supported by Herrman and Superintendent Bob Shannon.
“I think that we would be a safer and more welcoming school district for everyone by [including this],” Shannon said.
Since 1998, sexual orientation has been included in negotiated agreements with district members of the National Education Association.
School board members Marcia Rozell and Darell Edie voted against putting sexual orientation and gender identity in the non-discrimination policy.
Edie said he wondered where the line would be drawn. “Where do you stop in adding on policies?” he said.
Rozell also voted no, saying, “I just want to keep it simple. I don’t want to keep adding to the list of what we won’t discriminate against. I want to say we won’t discriminate, period.”
Two district residents also spoke to the board suggesting that the policy was not the best route to take.
Michael Walter, who said his nine children had gone through the USD 383 school system, said he preferred that parents have the first opportunity to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity with their children. He said that if the policy included students, the topics would have to be discussed at some point.
Five people who supported the updated policy spoke to the board Tuesday night including Kansas State University senior political science major Jerred McKee.
“Growing up in southwestern Kansas, being gay was something that was never talked about,” McKee said.
McKee said he struggled in college with extreme depression after he convinced himself that he couldn’t do the things he wanted to because he was gay, including joining the military and having a family.
“The environment that made me a 22-year-old man who felt it was necessary to lie about my identity for the majority of my life and decide that death might be a better way out than being gay was not created in my home. It was created in my school and my community,” McKee said.
McKee said that having sexual orientation and gender identity included in his school’s non-discrimination policy in high school would have let him know that people cared about him, especially when he was harassed.
“We can’t go back and fix the past, but you have control over the future,” he said. “There’s a new generation looking up to you. Please don’t let them down.”
After the passing vote was taken, the audience applauded the school board.