Schooling the Board 

Tennessee Equality Project urges unified school board to adopt LBGT-inclusive policies.

Ridgeway High School freshman Brianna Kirwan has seen firsthand the effectiveness of Memphis City Schools' LGBT-inclusive bullying policy.

Two years ago, when Kirwan was attending Colonial Middle School, a group of guys taunted her friend, whom they thought was gay, with "vulgar homophobic slurs." When Kirwan's teacher heard the comments, the boys were immediately suspended for half of the school year.

"We didn't see those boys for a while," Kirwan told the 23-member Shelby County Board of Education at their regular meeting last week.

During the meeting's public comment period, Kirwan and Tammy Green, a parent of an MCS student, asked the board to consider retaining MCS' LGBT-inclusive bullying policy in the new unified school district and to add "sexual orientation and gender identity or expression" to the employment nondiscrimination and harassment policy for school staff.

Kirwan and Green spoke on behalf of Tennessee Equality Project's Shelby County Committee.

"Tennessee Equality Project has been going to local school boards and highlighting the need for safe schools for all students, including LGBT students, as well as protecting the school staff and teachers from discrimination," said Jonathan Cole, chair of TEP's Shelby County Committee.

It's an especially relevant time for the statewide equal rights group to focus on policy with the Shelby County Board of Education. The Transition Planning Commission and the board are just beginning to look at ways to consolidate policies between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools after the merger.

Currently, MCS has a bullying policy that protects students based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, but the Shelby County Schools policy does not explicitly protect those categories.

"We want the new board to adopt what the city already has in place," Cole said.

Neither districts' employment nondiscrimination and harassment policy explicitly protects teachers or staff based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. But TEP is pushing the new unified board to add those qualifiers into the policy.

"If we want teachers to feel comfortable sticking their necks out for LGBT kids who are bullied in the halls or in the classroom, they need to know the administration and the school board also protect them," Cole said. "What's to prevent someone from saying, 'You must be gay if you're protecting this gay kid from being bullied?'"

Shelby County board member Betty Mallott, who chairs a committee focused on harmonizing board policy, said the board has not yet begun merging school policies. Currently, each district's policies apply to the schools that fell into their districts before the school merger.

"No one has begun yet on harmonizing any policy that has to do with how we run the schools or student behavior, but that will need to be organized soon," Mallott said.

Mallott sees the upcoming challenge as a chance to adopt best practices from each district.

"It's almost like when you go to a conference and see what other school districts are doing. You see some good ideas and decide you want to start doing that," Mallott said. "I think the principals and staff will help the board come up with what will be the best thinking of everybody on how we move forward."

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