School board updates non-discrimination policy to include gender identity

OKEECHOBEE — In a move designed to make the Okeechobee public schools more inclusive, the Okeechobee County School Board voted to expand its non-discrimination policy to include gender identity at its regular meeting July 10.

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy says that the first step in making sure everyone, regardless of orientation or identity, has a safe environment for learning inside Okeechobee schools is to memorialize in official policy that the school district will not discriminate against anyone.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Superintendent Kenworthy. “Everyone is welcome here; we’re not going to discriminate against anybody. We don’t care what your identity or orientation are, we want you to come to school and have a safe environment to learn.”

Gender identity is defined as a person’s perception of having a particular gender, which may or may not correspond with their birth sex.

It is being added to the list of many categories in which the school district prohibits any discrimination, such as race, religion, age, political beliefs, national or ethnic origins and others. The policy states that no person shall be excluded from participation or denied the benefits of any education program, activity or employment on the basis of these categories.

The school board also voted to include gender identity in the district’s prohibition of harassment policy as well. Harassment includes any slurs, innuendos or any other verbal or physical conduct which has the purpose of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.

Similar proposals to include gender identity in school district’s non-discrimination and harassment policies have passed in school boards around the country in recent years. In January 2018, a school district in Lansing, Mich., had a federal lawsuit filed against it after passing a similar policy in November 2017.

The plaintiffs in the Michigan case are parents of students in the Williamston Community Schools who claim that the new policies promote “alternative sexual lifestyles” and seek to punish both their and their children’s Christian beliefs.

According to the complaint, the new policy “requires the school district to punish students for alleged harassment or bullying of other students for merely expressing opposition to the school district approved alternative lifestyles, or for acting with purportedly ‘aggressive behavior’ against other students with whom they simply disagree, thereby violating, and substantially interfering with, the parents’ and students’ constitutional right to freely exercise their religion.”

The Williamston Community Schools District is seeking dismissal of the lawsuit.

Mr. Kenworthy isn’t worried about that kind of negative reaction in Okeechobee.

“We’ve had policies in place before that people may have not agreed with and we have worked through it,” Mr. Kenworthy said. “I think everyone recognizes that this segment of the population is growing. Students are beginning to come out more and are not afraid to share their identity. And you see those students everywhere, not just in our schools, but you see them in our churches or in our stores. So we just felt that it was the right thing to do.”

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