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Conservative group upset over bullying policy

CHARLESTON, W.Va.-- A new state school board policy meant to protect students from bullying has drawn the ire of a state conservative group.

Jeremy Dys of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia told board members Wednesday his group disagrees with the inclusion of "sexual orientation" and "gender identity or expression" included in Policy 4373's bullying protections.

The state board typically does not allow public comment after taking up its agenda, but members gave Dys five minutes to speak. Wednesday's meeting was a continuation of Tuesday's board agenda.

Dys said the policy infringes on students' religious liberties. He said schools could use the new policy to punish students for writing about their anti-homosexuality beliefs online, or teaching a Bible lesson from the first chapter of Romans.

Board members don't usually respond to delegations, but board president Wade Linger addressed Dys' comments.

"I don't think this causes the things that you think it causes," Linger said.

He pointed out the policy includes 13 anti-bullying protections including race, religion, national origin, physical appearance and disabilities in addition to sexual orientation and gender identity.

"I'm not sure how it hurts to have that on the list," he said.

State board attorney Heather Deskins and Melanie Purkey, executive director of the education department's Office of Healthy Schools, addressed comments the board received while the policy was in its 60-day comment period.

Deskins said the harassment and bullying section of the policy would not violate students' First Amendment Rights.

She said state law already defines bullying and harassment as "intentional actions and speech" that cause harm to a student or their property, or actions and speech that cause reasonable fear of harm to students or their property.

State law also defines bullying as actions that are severe enough to create an "intimidating, threatening or emotionally abusive" environment for students, or actions that disrupt the orderly operation of school.

Statements of belief likely would not meet those definitions, Deskins said.

"Statements of personal belief are not going to be considered acts of harassment," she said. "You can tell when a student is talking about personal beliefs and when they're trying to get under the skin."

She said the policy relies on teachers — who know the students and the context of their arguments — to determine whether students' actions are harassment.

Deskins also addressed worries that the policy would affect private, religious and parochial schools. State board policies do not usually affect non-public schools, except for those dealing with school safety, sanitation and immunization.

She pointed out that the policy's second page specifies it applies to students, staff and public guests in West Virginia public schools.

Board member Lowell Johnson questioned the new requirement that teachers report student offenses via the West Virginia Education Information System, an online database for student information.

He asked if every teacher has a computer in his or her classroom. He said teachers shouldn't have to leave the classroom to catalog behavior issues.

"If you want them to do data entry ... then every teacher has to have access," he said. "I don't know how you can mandate this data entry without providing

the mechanism."

Purkey said state teachers' unions had the same concerns when the education department approached them about the new policy. Because of those concerns, Purkey said the policy still allows teachers to report behavior issues via a paper form.

State board members are slated to vote on the new policy in December.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com.


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