CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Board of Education passed revisions to a student behavior policy Wednesday, including a measure protecting sexual orientation and gender identity.
Board members unanimously approved Policy 4373, titled Expected Behavior in Safe and Supportive Schools, amid a flurry of public comments. Public speakers were limited to three minutes each.
The policy combines four previous polices regarding student behavior and discipline. Most notably among the speakers who have rallied for and against the policy was the addition of "gender identity or expression" and "sexual orientation" under the list of characteristics that are specifically protected.
Heading up the support for the new policy was Bradley Milam, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender West Virginians.
"We are elated," Milam said. "This is a long time coming and it affects all students. We are so excited it is becoming a reality in West Virginia, where this (bullying) is an epidemic."
Jeremy Dys, president of the conservative Family Policy Council of West Virginia, spoke against the policy at the board's November meeting and was back on Wednesday. He said again that the policy jeopardizes the free speech rights of students whose religious beliefs do not condone homosexuality.
Punishment for bullying or harassment can range from a change in a student's class schedule to in-school suspension. Out-of-school suspension for up to 10 days or an administrative recommendation that the student be placed in an alternative education program are on the more severe end of the scale.
"Without such deletion or modification this proposed policy gives unrivaled authority to school officials to censor any speech when that official subjectively deems such speech as offensive," Dys said.
Ray Lambert, chairman of the West Virginia Family Foundation, another conservative group, said the board would open "a Pandora's box of litigation" with "far reaching effects" by passing the policy revisions.
"This board seems to allude to the fact that sexual orientation is a birth issue, that these people cannot change, and that's not the case at all," Lambert said.
Others who strongly opposed passing the policy felt that it was an avenue for the board to appeal to the homosexual community. Tom Fast, an attorney from Fayette County, approached the board saying that there is no reason to single out gays in the bullying policy among the dozen other traits listed under that section.
The other traits include race, color, religion, ancestry, origin, gender, socioeconomic status, academic status, physical appearance, disability, or other characteristics.
"So why does the policy have to say sexual orientation or gender identity? The answer is, I mean there is no other way around this, the answer is it is an attempt to sanction the homosexual agenda, the homosexual lifestyle and that is the attempt here," Fast said.
Board President Wade Linger said that he was not surprised by the unanimous vote. He said much thought went into crafting the policy.
"I don't think this gives special status to anyone as some groups seem to feel. It ensures equal treatment and protection for all of our students," Linger said.
Leslie Bakker agreed. Bakker watched as her son was bullied while he attended Kanawha County schools until he graduated.
Had a similar policy been in effect when her son was in school, he wouldn't have lived in fear of riding the bus or entering the bathrooms of his school, she said.
"We're just lucky that more didn't happen. The policy that we're talking about needs to be put in place. Intimidation starts early and it is ongoing resulting in long-term stress for these kids," she said.
Members of Capital High School's Gay/Straight Alliance also were in the audience to support passage of the policy.
Garry Dick, faculty sponsor for the Gay/Straight Alliance at Cabell Midland High School, told board members that without policies to control bullying, the worst can happen.
"I for one would like to never again hear of another teen suicide that resulted from an incident that can be eliminated from our schools," Dick said.
But Policy 4373 does more than just protect students from bullying. In November, Kanawha County administrators and teachers, along with teachers' unions, challenged some of the proposed changes to the policy pertaining to discipline.
They said at the time that the policy made it more difficult to suspend students. The underlying philosophy of some of the changes is that students are less likely to drop out of school if they are kept in school as part of punishments.
It also states that schools are encouraged to, but not forced, to use available funding and resources to launch school-based intervention strategies for students that have committed serious offenses.
St. Albans High School Principal Jeff Kelley initially said that some of the proposed measures would only make his job harder and his school less safe.
After the November meeting Kelley and other administrators and stakeholders were able to meet with the state Department of Education and voice their concerns, which lead to the changes, he said.
"I think they were very receptive to our concerns and there were changes that were made in the final revision that reflected those concerns," Kelley said. "There are still recommendations there as far as what the state wanted, but it also provides us the latitude to still handle disciplinary measures in a more severe manner if there is a unique situation that arrives that causes us to go outside of those recommended maximums."
@tagline:Contact writer Amber Marra at amber.ma...@dailymail.com or 304-348-4843.