MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A proposed anti-bullying policy for West Virginia schools acknowledges for the first time that sexual orientation and gender identity are common reasons for harassment. Had it been in place when Michael White was in middle-school, it might have spared him the worst years of his life.
"When I heard about this, I started crying because it's been a long road," said White, a 21-year-old junior at Fairmont State University who was bullied for being gay as a teen in St. Albans. "This is very, very necessary, and I really think it will be a massive step toward equality."
The state Department of Education is taking public comments until 4 p.m. Tuesday about the 75-page student conduct and disciplinary policy that the Board of Education will consider Dec. 14. If approved, the changes that acknowledge the targeting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students would go into effect July 1, 2012.
The civil rights group Fairness West Virginia lauds the enumeration of reasons why children are bullied as "a landmark achievement" that effectively provides political and legal cover to teachers, counselors and others who might hesitate to intervene for an LGBT student.
"Teachers may feel they're putting their reputation or job at stake by protecting a student," said executive director Bradley Milam. "But now, they can simply point to the policy."
It also tells those students and their families that they have the right to protection, he said.
But the Family Policy Council, which has long opposed protections for people based on sexual orientation or gender identity, calls the policy "dangerous and expansive." President Jeremy Dys contends "bullying should be defined by a person's actions, not the status of his victim."
The West Virginia Family Foundation, meanwhile, says it's a "well thought-out, well-crafted design, done for no other reason than to promote the homosexual agenda."
"They're trying to force a lifestyle that a majority of the people of West Virginia do not want their kids exposed to. It undermines their values and their religious teaching," President Kevin McCoy said Monday.
If it passes, McCoy said, he'll demand lawmakers repeal it.
"We're going to hold them accountable," he vowed. "If they're willing to work with us, we're going to seek to have it repealed. If they're not going to work with us, we're going to seek to have them voted out of office."
The draft policy enumerates 12 possible reasons a child could be bullied. They include race, color, religion, gender, ancestry, national origin, socioeconomic status, academic status, physical appearance, and mental, physical or developmental disability.
The controversy comes with two other phrases: gender identity or expression, and sexual orientation.
Amelia Davis Courts, assistant state superintendent of schools, says the department is obligated under newly passed legislation to develop a comprehensive policy and begin collecting data on the reasons children are bullied.
"Obviously, we had to come up with a pretty comprehensive list that schools could use," she said, "and the research we did found that sexual orientation is usually in the top three reasons."
Under the proposal, bullying for the specified reasons or any "other characteristic" would be a Level 3 disciplinary offense. Punishments range from as little as before- or after-school detention or a one-day removal from the classroom to weekend detention or suspension for up to 10 days.
The policy also extends beyond school property to the virtual world, holding students accountable for "vulgar or offensive speech" online if it disrupts the learning atmosphere at school.
"This includes blogs and social media postings created for the purpose of inviting others to indulge in disruptive and hateful conduct towards a student or staff member," the policy says.
Melanie Purkey, executive director of the state's Office of Healthy Schools, said the last policies on bullying were drafted about a decade ago and don't adequately reflect today's reality.
If text messages or Facebook postings affect a child's ability to feel safe or to learn, she said, "we need to do something about it."
But McCoy said he's deeply troubled by the policy's potential to invade a private home and contends it raises a problem with the constitutionally protected right to free speech.
Neither Purkey nor Davis would say how many comments the state has received about the policy or how those comments break down. But Davis called the policy "a huge step in the right direction to address the state board's goal of really supporting positive student behavior in school."
White, who used to find death threats in his mailbox and urine in his shoes after gym class, couldn't agree more. He tried to talk to teachers and administrators about his harassment, "but they never had any backbone," he said. "They would always push it aside."
He lived near his middle school, so he was an easy target when a football player who thought White had been looking at him told other students White was gay.
He lost friends and became depressed, briefly contemplating suicide. Things only improved when he got to high school, joined the show choir and found "more liberal, open-minded people" who accepted him.
"I understand where teachers are coming from," White said. "They don't want to stick their neck out. It could cause them a lot of flak because there's nothing in the policy. But now there will be."
Even if the policy passes, White's not confident teachers and administrators will jump to defend LGBT students. But, he said, "this will eliminate their cop-out."
"It will give them reason, not just morally and ethically, but legally," he said. "Maybe it's that little extra tap on the back to say, `OK, I feel comfortable for doing it.'"
Department of Education: http://wvde.state.wv.us/policies/
Fairness W.Va.: http://wvbullyfree.com/
Family Policy Council: http://www.familypolicywv.com/