Without public discussion or argument, the Fort Worth school board took action two weeks ago to give the district one of the most comprehensive policies in the country for protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) students from bullying.
If, of course, the enforcement is as strong as the rules are on paper.
On June 12, the board unanimously approved an expanded anti-bullying policy that local gay activists say leaves “zero wiggle room” in tackling the harassment of all students, but especially those who identify in one of the LGBT categories.
“It’s a significant step forward,” said Jon Nelson, a member of Fairness Fort Worth, a gay rights advocacy group. “There’s no question. It’s one of the most progressive policies in the country.”
The school board received widespread praise from equal rights groups last year when it added “gender identity and expression” to the list of behaviors protected from harassment in its Student Code of Conduct. Students are given a copy of the code at the beginning of each school year.
The changes approved this month add clear guidelines for how administrators must investigate bullying complaints and discipline students. The new policy reiterates the district’s commitment to ending the harassment of students who don’t “conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity,” as well as prohibiting bullying based on “race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, national origin, or disability.” The “gender identity and expression” part would cover, as examples, boys who wear fingernail polish or girls with crew cuts.
Nelson, who has worked with the school district to improve its anti-bullying policies, said he and others have informed administrators that national research shows LGBT students are several times more likely to attempt suicide than any other group and that 90 percent of them will be repeatedly bullied in a given school year.
“Rather than being a surprise, I think it was very gratifying to see them put on paper what they had been talking about,” Nelson said. “It shows they care.”
[pullquote_right]Dallas is the only Texas school district with as comprehensive an anti-bullying policy as Fort Worth.[/pullquote_right]According to Chuck Smith, deputy executive director of Equality Texas, Dallas is the only Texas school district with as comprehensive an anti-bullying policy as Fort Worth.
The changes go further than the law passed by the Texas Legislature last year requiring all school districts to create anti-bullying policies, and they surpass the recommendations of the Texas Association of School Boards, Smith said.
“This is fabulous, actually,” he said.
Smith said the new Fort Worth policy improves on state requirements. First, it creates a two-tiered system for investigating allegations of harassment. Any time a student complains of bullying, administrators must examine the situation both as possible bullying and as possible discrimination. So the district looks at each complaint not just once, but two times, with two ways of determining if harassment took place.
Secondly, every school district is required to develop separate policies for addressing bullying and discrimination. Fort Worth has done so and has included protections for students’ sexual orientation and gender identity in both areas.
“The benefit is that in some places, there are certain people who view bullying as a rite of passage,” Smith said. “It’s sad that some people can’t see bullying and recognize it when it’s right in front of them, but that’s the benefit of having it defined in both discrimination and in bullying.”
Board trustee Ann Sutherland said the policy looks good, but she has received “disturbing” e-mails and phone calls from parents of students who are being repeatedly mistreated.
Sutherland called the policy a “strong beginning” but said she is uncertain if it adequately addresses bullying of all students or if principals and teachers will have the time to do what is necessary to curtail bullying on their campuses.
“You could say I’m stumped. We need a strong policy. We don’t have enough people to keep the kids who are misbehaving from getting out of control,” she said. “I don’t think we know how to do this.”
Tom Anable, president of Fairness Fort Worth, disagrees.
The policy isn’t a problem, he said. The guidelines are as progressive as the gay community –– or any parent worried about bullying –– could ask for. What’s necessary to make it work is training of the district staff so they’re clear about what’s expected of them, Anable said.
“Without training, enforcement, and evaluation, policies are just pretty pieces of paper on a shelf,” he said. “But Fort Worth continues to commit to this as much as possible.”
He pointed out that the district recently completed training of its counselors and intervention specialists on how to implement Safe Space Kits, which educate teachers on how to make their classrooms into safe environments for LGBT students. Fairness Fort Worth purchased 38 such kits for the district, one for each middle school and high school, on the condition that the counseling department provide training.
Kathryn Everest, the district’s director of guidance and counseling, followed through on that promise, Anable said. The district should present the kits to campuses in October.
“It took them longer than we hoped to get their training done, but that’s now been accomplished,” he said. “We’re very pleased.”
He added that Everest, along with other administrators, has made a similar commitment to train district staff on the policies approved this month.
That’s why comments made by trustee Carlos Vasquez in a June 6 Fort Worth Weekly story (“Dying for Change”) surprised and infuriated both Anable and Nelson. Vasquez, who is gay, said budget shortfalls meant the district couldn’t afford training and suggested Fairness Fort Worth provide it free of charge.
“If Vasquez’ attitude is that the training is voluntary, then this policy is worthless,” Anable said. “The proof is in the pudding.”
“His cavalier attitude is shocking,” Nelson said.
The two activists also said Vasquez’ comments are disappointing given that Fairness Fort Worth has been offering to raise money for anti-bullying programs since January of last year.
“We have yet to get a budget, a proposal, or a dollar amount,” Anable said. “We’ve heard nothing.”
Vasquez did not return calls, and trustee Tobi Jackson declined to comment.
Training is important, but even if the district doesn’t follow through, that doesn’t make the policy worthless, said Kim Westheimer, the director of an education program at Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group.
“Although it has a greater impact when there’s training, the policies themselves do make a difference,” said Westheimer, citing research she conducted for the Massachusetts Department of Education.
Another positive aspect of the Fort Worth policy, she said, is that it’s very specific about what bullying looks like, including examples like “name-calling, slurs, or rumors; physical aggression or assault.” It also provides a wide range of options for discipline, from counseling for the bully and the bullied to follow-up inquiries to see if things have changed and an education program for the school community.
That last item is particularly powerful, Westheimer said.
“Bullying doesn’t just happen to just two people — it happens to the whole school community and needs to be addressed on that level,” she said. “It’s certainly one of the stronger policies that I’ve seen out there.”