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State College Board Approves New Anti-Discrimination Measures

on July 26, 2011 9:10 AM

With a 6-2 vote, the State College Area school board approved Monday two new nondiscrimination policies. Both include specific provisions forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Only board member Gowen Roper was absent for the vote. Richard Bartnik and Chris Small dissented.

Before the vote, three local residents spoke in support of the new provisions.

"We should be protecting all of our students equally," said Audrey Smith, a State College borough resident and mother of two. Another supporter argued that schools "are the one place where (sexual-minority) youngsters have a chance to find a safe haven."

Acting Superintendent Michael Hardy introduced the policy proposals in June, saying that they materialized "in response to requests from students, faculty, staff and community members." Specifically, the policies -- numbered district Policies 103 and 104 -- expand the school district's anti-discrimination policies and specify race, color, age, creed, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ancestry, national origin, handicap and disability.

As noted in a memo from Hardy, the policies "will address conduct inside and outside the classroom, on district property, and encourage students and employees to report incidents of discrimination to the designated administrators." He said the goal is to "further protect students and employees in a safe, healthy and nurturing learning environment."

The school board, under terms of an agreement in a federal lawsuit, was required to consider the expanded anti-discrimination provisions, though district representatives have said initial consideration for the new policies predated the litigation.

The same legal agreement also required the board to repeal its ban on same-gender domestic-partner benefits, a move that the board completed earlier this summer.

A district employee, Kerry Wiessmann, and her partner, Beth G. Resko, initiated the litigation this year.

Bartnik and Small, who opposed the new policies Monday, offered differing reasons for their respective votes.

Bartnik said he thought the policy proposals lacked clarity on the definition of "gender identity." He also worried that inclusion of gender identity in the policies could open the district to expensive litigation seeking separate facilities, counseling, counselors and other offerings for certain groups.

"Nobody anywhere has been able to specifically identify what the implications are to the school district" on that front, he said. " ... My overall thought is that we're not in any hurry to include gender identity" until its definition becomes more clear to the board.

Bartnik noted that the district already is covered under provisions of a State College borough anti-bias law that includes gender identity.

Small, meanwhile, suggested that the inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation -- two categories not included in federal non-discrimination standards -- was "arbitrary on our part. That's a reflection of our personal bias."

In addition, Small questioned why "veteran status" and "genetic information" were not included in the policy proposals. And while the policies specify gender identity and sexual orientation, he said, "we're going to ignore obesity.

"Do we not think obese people are discriminated against in employment and advancement?" Small said.

He said that "the absence of an (anti-discrimination) policy doesn't necessarily mean the district is going to discriminate."

Other board members aired support for the policies. Dorothea Stahl said she was comfortable with their specificity. That way, she said, future boards "will not be allowed to be arbitrary" in enforcing anti-discrimination standards.

Jim Pawelczyk, the board vice president, said the legal definition of "gender identity" has been well established by precedent in other local-government entities, including in southeastern Pennsylvania.

In other news Monday night:

  • The board voted 8-0 on a revised general-fund budget for 2011-'12. It's been revised to include $1.1 million in extra state monies that weren't included in the board's earlier budget plan. The bulk of the additional money is expected to be transferred into the district's Capital Reserve Fund, though some will likely be used to cover "costs related to the litigation over benefits," according to a district memorandum.

The extent of those legal costs is not yet clear, according to the memo, written by business administrator Jeffrey Ammerman.

  • The board agreed to delay action on the appointment of a vendor to provide student-portrait photographic services. During a public-comment portion of the meeting, a representative of photography vendor Kids at Heart suggested that the administration-recommended vendor, Lifetouch, had received improper favorable consideration. Board members noted they had not heard of the allegation before; they wanted it to be reviewed, they indicated.

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