Editor’s update: Despite the risks associated with maintaining the creation of additional, vaguely defined “protected classes,” the Knox County school board acquiesced to Mayor Madeline Rogero’s wishes and voted Wednesday night to keep the extended language in the employee and student handbooks with regards to the school system’s harassment policy.
New language was added in 2012 that authors say was intended to protect LGBTQ persons from harassment, however, Chief Deputy Law Director David Buuck told the Knoxville News Sentinel that the change could imperil the school system with more – not less – lawsuits:
“It has cost the taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars just to defend those. It’s just not right,” he said. “We have a duty to protect this board also from frivolous lawsuits, and despite what the professor of law said, as soon as you put in some of this wording that people out in this audience are wanting, it’s creating another protected in class in violation of equal protection for all students.
“And the minute that happens, one or two of those same attorneys is going to be filing a lawsuit, and we’ll have to go to federal court and defend it.”
The News Sentinel broke down the school board members’ brief comments and votes:
Mike McMillan, one of three current school board members who voted to add protections for “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in 2012, made a substitute motion to keep the existing language.
“I think what would afford the most protection is if we just left it as it is,” McMillan said.
Jennifer Owen, who wanted to still add “sex,” and Patti Bounds voted against keeping the policy as is. Terry Hill was absent.
The original proposal was to replace “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” with “sex” and “creed.” Board members have said the change was recommended by the law department.
Tony Norman, who ultimately voted to keep the specific LGBT protections, first offered a defense of both the board and the law department.
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero is asking the Knox County school board to keep language referring to gender and sexual orientation in its employee and student harassment policies.
The school board is proposing striking “actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation” and replacing it with “sex.” The revised policies also add the word “creed” to the list of protected categories.
The board was to consider the revised policies on a first reading Wednesday night.
Board members have said the changes are simply to align with language used in state and federal law and that gender and sexual orientation will still be covered by the word “sex.” But critics say that may not be true under the Trump administration. In July, the Justice Department told an appeals court that federal civil rights protections do not extend to sexual orientation.
Last week, Rogero, a progressive Democrat, sent an email to each member of the school board and Superintendent Bob Thomas. In it, she said she has “heard many questions and fears from members of the local LGBT community” and that “LGBT students are among the most vulnerable to bullying and among the most at risk of self-harm and suicide.”
Here is the entirety of her email, which she shared on Facebook:
As Mayor, I have always said that I want Knoxville to be a welcoming city for everybody. As the Board of Education considers possible changes to the language in the school system’s harassment policies, I would like to offer some personal perspective. I rarely take a position on school board policy, but this is about who we are as a community and the message we send to our residents and the outside world. I will also be issuing this statement publicly.
In 2012, I proposed and City Council approved the addition of the categories of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ to our non-discrimination policy for City employees. I did this after consultation with our Law Department, who assured me that adding these categories created no conflict whatsoever with existing state and federal protections. I believed that it was important to send a clear message to our employees and our community that discrimination in any form will not be tolerated in our organization. Since those categories are not explicitly protected under federal law, we wanted to ensure that everyone at the City of Knoxville understood our expectations in creating a welcoming and inclusive workplace.
Knox County Commission adopted similar language to protect County employees in 2013. Other local institutions including the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Valley Authority have similar explicit protections for those categories. So do many of our largest local private employers, including Alcoa and Scripps Networks.
My concern as you consider the proposed changes is that removing the existing language in the school board’s policy will send the opposite message to your employees and your students, even if that is not what you intend. I have heard many questions and fears from members of the local LGBT community, as well as Knox County parents and teachers, about what the consequences might be of deleting that language. The Knoxville Police Department works closely with Knox County Schools on anti-bullying initiatives, and I appreciate the commitment you have all shown to that effort. We know that statistically, LGBT students are among the most vulnerable to bullying and among the most at risk of self-harm and suicide.
I urge you to consider carefully the message that may be sent by the proposed changes in the policy. If there is a need to add the word ‘sex’ to the existing language, that could be done without removing any existing protections.
I would be happy to discuss the issue with you. Thank you for your service to the students, teachers and residents of Knox County.