Discrimination and harassment targeting one’s sexual orientation and gender identity are now explicitly forbidden under revised policies for students and staff in the Virginia Beach School District.
The School Board voted in August to add sexual orientation and gender identity to policies that cover equal opportunity employment and non-discrimination and non-harassment of students.
School Board member Joel McDonald said in an interview Friday that the updated policies “are substantive, but they’re not necessarily earth-shattering.”
“We’ve always felt like we were against bullying, period. We were against discrimination, period,” McDonald said. “But there is something to be said for the power of explicitly saying that we’re against discrimination, bullying, harassment on terms of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
He added: “On the employment side, it’s really a matter of ensuring that we do attract the best and brightest regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
At the August meeting in which the board voted, the policy changes drew just one public speaker. It was a voice of support from Michael Berlucchi, a member of the Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission and vice president of Hampton Roads PRIDE, a group that supports the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Berlucchi, a graduate of the Virginia Beach public school system, said Monday that he did not believe a culture of discrimination existed in the district, but he considered the added policy language “hugely important” for students and employees.
“Students aren’t able to perform at their highest function if they’re not their authentic selves,” he said.
The August vote was unanimous, though board member Ashley McLeod provided a clarifying remark at the meeting regarding her support, according to a video of the meeting.
“I wanted to make the blanket comment statement,” she said. “I think that it should simply read, ‘We don’t discriminate,’ because we don’t and we shouldn’t, and by giving a list I don’t think that does anyone any favor. We leave someone out, by not just saying we don’t discriminate, but I am in full support of this as proposed.”
McDonald, in his interview Friday with Southside Daily, cited a national school climate survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network as a reason why he felt these protections were necessary. The survey, which included respondents from across the country, said 74 percent of LGBT students were verbally harassed for their sexual orientation while 55 percent were verbally harassed for their gender expression. The survey also found that 33 percent of LGBT students were physically harassed, while another 23 percent were physically harassed for their gender expression.
The Virginia Beach School Board has been discussing the policy changes since November 2013, but members believed they were restricted from adopting them for a number of legal reasons, McDonald said. The effort was given a boost in March, when Attorney General Mark Herring published an advisory opinion about the power of school boards in regards to amending their policies regarding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Herring said in his opinion that school boards are charged with making sure their schools are run safely and properly, and that this was a part of it.
“The legal landscape really changed,” McDonald said. “I think this was the time to do it.”
McDonald said he hopes this will help students and school employees feel safer in their daily environments.
“LGBT students are prone to being harassed and bullied,” McDonald said. “They’re prone to feeling like their schools aren’t welcoming environments so essentially this was a move to help clarify that we want our schools to be welcoming environments. We don’t want our students to feel like not wanting to come to school, not want to learn.”