The state school board began wrangling yesterday over whether to explicitly protect students from harassment because of sexual orientation, the latest contentious battle over gay rights in Maryland.
At one point, the bitter, two-hour hearing before the board became so sexually explicit that four board members temporarily walked out. The board is to vote on the issue today.
State educators are proposing to add a new, broadly stated regulation calling for "all students in Maryland's public schools" to be safe and free from any form of harassment.
But gay rights advocates want the state's regulation to protect students against specific types of harassment -- including based on race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. An earlier board proposal had included that wording.
"Your removal of the words 'sexual orientation' mimics the silence about gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender students in our schools," Beth Hagner, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County, said during the hearing. "The message to the students is that we are not worth protecting."
Conservative Christian organizations and other anti-gay rights advocates have seized on the gay rights version of the proposal as a threat to children, charging that explicitly protecting gay students from harassment will promote homosexuality.
"This is an action to expand on a state level the indoctrination of my children," said Bunny Galladora, a retired Montgomery County deputy sheriff with five children. "The home, church and school should be safe places for our children, not battlegrounds for their bodies and minds."
The State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the regulation today in Baltimore, and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said her staff plans to go forward with its recommendation to not specify any protected student groups.
"I don't want to specify which groups are protected, because that leaves out so many other students," Grasmick said. "I don't want to leave out protection for students who may be teased for obesity or anorexia or seizures. The regulation should protect all students."
Eleven of the 12 board members were at yesterday's hearing, but they gave little indication how they would vote. "I'm not sure yet," said board member Edward L. Root. "There isn't agreement yet."
Several board members said they have received more mail on this decision than on any other issue they've faced on the state board.
The gay rights debate has been highlighted across the state over the past year. Earlier this week, Gov. Parris N. Glendening told gay rights advocates that he is committed to passing a state law barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation before the end of his term, though such an effort failed during this year's General Assembly.
Last week, the Frederick County commissioners decided not to recommend passage of an anti-discrimination law, but they ordered public hearings and will face the issue again next year.
The state school board's debate began this summer, when educators published the proposed regulation calling on local school systems to "promote a school climate where all students in Maryland, regardless of but not limited to, race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, sexual orientation, language, socio-economic status, age and disability, are assured educational environments that are safe, optimal for academic achievement and free from harassment."
Explicit protection of gay students is in place in two Maryland school systems -- Howard and Montgomery counties -- and in at least four other states, gay rights advocates say.
But anti-gay rights groups immediately began protesting the board's plan. Before they had a chance to testify before the board, educators pulled the proposal.
Their substitute wording says that "all students in Maryland's public schools, without exception, have the right to educational environments that are safe, optimal for academic achievement and free from any form of harassment."
State educators and board members thought they had found the perfect compromise, avoiding a bitter gay rights debate while expanding protection of Maryland students from harassment for any reason.
"Our recent actions with respect to the maintenance of an atmosphere of civility and respect in all Maryland schools has been subject to frequent misunderstanding by individuals and groups with widely differing points of view," board president Walter Sondheim Jr. said in a statement on behalf of the board. "We decided, unanimously, not to attempt to categorize those students who would be singled out for avoidance of abuse or harassment.
"We are firm in our commitment that every school has an inescapable responsibility to provide an atmosphere that is completely free of ill-manner and prejudicial behavior by everyone," Sondheim said.
The Maryland Commission on Human Relations sent a letter to the state board this week supporting the new, broad wording before the board, saying that it is "absolute and clearly inclusive."
But gay rights supporters said more specific language is needed because students get teased at an early age. "Anti-gay name calling begins in the early grades," said Tim Hannapel, a lawyer who is gay and has two daughters in the Montgomery County schools. "There needs to be protection for kids."
Representatives of two other groups -- Advocates for Children and Youth and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union -- testified yesterday that the board should explicitly protect gay students.
"All [students] does not send a message to me that [gay students] should now be included," said Bebe Verdery of the ACLU. "You need to say what you mean so teachers and administrators are clear."
But those opposed to explicit protection for gay students said students and parents who don't support homosexuality shouldn't have to deal with it in the schools.
One speaker against gay rights waved magazines portraying gay sex acts, prompting four board members to leave the room.
Added another, less dramatic speaker, Mary Beth Garrahan, who has three children in Howard County's schools: "This would encourage a different form of harassment, toward people with traditional views. Many of us are uncomfortable with the gay lifestyle."