GLAA Testifies for School Policy on Student Harassment
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GLAA Testifies for School Policy on Student Harassment

Testimony on the DC Public Schools 2001 Fiscal Year Budget
Delivered before the Emergency Transitional Educational Board of Trustees

Tuesday, November 16, 1999

Ms. Cooper, Members of the Board, and Fellow Citizens:

Good evening. My name is Bob Summersgill. I am Vice President for Political Affairs for the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization in the country.

It was founded in 1971 to advance the equal rights of gay men and lesbians in Washington, DC. Our first lobbying success was persuading the DC Board of Education in May 1972 to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation throughout the public school system. We have been involved in a number of other issues involving the school system over the past 28 years.

At the beginning of the current school year, I sent a letter to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman pointing out that the DC School system has no formal policy on student-on-student harassment. The United States Supreme Court ruled last May that schools that willfully ignore sexual harassment of one student by another can be held liable for violating federal civil rights law-Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This is a serious and potentially expensive problem for the DC School system.

Writing for the majority in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said lawsuits may be filed against school officials who knowingly and deliberately ignore student-on-student harassment.

It is important that a sexual harassment policy also include harassment based on sexual orientation.

The Supreme Court recently clarified that harassment directed at lesbian and gay students is also covered by Title IX. In Nabozny v. Podlesny, the Wisconsin school district that ignored student brutality against a gay classmate lost nearly one million dollars.

Unfortunately, the abuse of lesbian and gay students often involves sexual harassment from their peers. This harassment often takes the form of violence. Turning a deaf ear to complaints of serious harassment and violence, the court found, school officials themselves facilitate the denial of educational opportunities to harassed students.

We do not want to see gay and lesbian students being harassed in our public schools, nor do we want the District government to be hit with an expensive lawsuit. That is why we are asking you to implement a comprehensive anti-harassment policy.

At your last meeting, General Counsel Veleter Mazyck presented an introductory briefing. It is certainly our hope that a comprehensive and inclusive policy is crafted and enacted with due haste. Enactment of an anti-harassment policy would both reduce the potential for student-on-student harassment as well as provide the school system with record of concern and active involvement in stopping harassment.

Of course, along with the declaration of a policy statement, training of teachers and staff would be needed to insure that they understand their obligation to stop harassment and take seriously complaints of students being harassed by their peers.

The cost of training all of the teachers, staff and administrators of DC Public Schools on the policy and how to enforce it is rather modest compared to the overall budget and the potential for lawsuits. Some reasonable amount must be included for materials, trainers, administrative leave, and oversight. This should be comparable to other in-service training conducted on other issues.

It would be most unfortunate for this Board to approve a policy that would drastically reduce the School System's liability but be unable to implement it do to a budget oversight.

Thank you. I would be glad to answer any questions.

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