Wichita schools should do more to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and employees, a teachers union leader told board members last week.
“The 50,000 students in this district overwhelmingly don’t care who somebody loves,” said Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita. “They are more concerned with how people are treated and how people treat one another.”
Wentz urged school board members to expand the district’s official non-discrimination statement to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expressoin along with race, religion, and other protected categories.
The change would affirm the district’s “commitment to workplace equity and inclusion. … So I’d like to see that included. I think it’s time,” Wentz said.
Currently, Wichita’s statement of non-discrimination says the district “does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ancestry, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, veteran status, or any other legally protected classification.”
The policy does not include sexual orientation or gender identity because it is rooted in federal law, which doesn’t include those categories, said district spokeswoman Wendy Johnson.
The school board could reconsider the policy, she said, but so far no board member has proposed doing so.
“As we’ve indicated many times, a safe and supportive learning environment is paramount to student success, and (Superintendent) Dr. (Alicia) Thompson emphasized that she remains committed to that for each student, every day,” Johnson said.
But despite strongly worded and at times emotional speeches from students at the time, board members did not revise their official non-discrimination statement because legal advisers recommended that it mirror federal law.
Federal law requires public entities such as school districts to issue notices of non-discrimination, which hold them accountable for not discriminating in hiring and other practices. The statement differs from board policies, some of which include sexual orientation.
An attorney for the Kansas Association of School Boards declined to comment about Wichita’s non-discrimination statement.
“KASB advises school districts to follow the law,” said Scott Rothschild, spokesman for the group. “The decision of whether to include sexual orientation is up to the local district.”
Advocates for LGBTQ people say the student code of conduct and bullying prevention plan in Wichita also should specifically cite sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to better protect students.
“It’s just kind of dealt with on a case-by-case basis, without any policy guidance,” said Tom Witt, executive director of the LGBTQ rights group Equality Kansas.
“There are instances of transgender children or gender-nonconforming children who are bullied in school, and we would certainly like them to have the same protections from bullying and harassment as everybody else.”
Witt said some Kansas districts include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in their non-discrimination statements – including Topeka, which has nearly 14,000 students, and Cimarron, which has 655.
“The size of the district has zero correlation to the quality of their policy,” he said. “It’s the quality of the leadership that matters.”
Amid national debate over the treatment of transgender children in schools, Kansas education officials say they’re dealing with transgender issues more frequently than in years past.
The Derby school district, just south of Wichita, was at odds for more than a year over a school policy that allowed students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity.
In Wichita last fall, a children’s book featuring a transgender child was the focus of a debate in school libraries, prompting the author to visit the city and advocate for more inclusive materials and policies.
Liz Hamor, co-founder of the Wichita chapter of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said policies that protect LGBTQ students make schools safer for everyone.
According to a 2015 survey conducted by the network, more than half of LGBTQ students said they experienced discrimination at school during the previous year.
Only 7 percent of Kansas students attend a school with an anti-bullying or harassment policy that includes protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, the survey showed.
Mike Rodee, president of the Wichita school board, said a committee is reviewing policies regarding harassment and other issues, but so far there is no proposal to reconsider the district’s official non-discrimination statement.
“I know it’s something that is in the news and that type of thing,” Rodee said. “We just need to work through policy so we get it right and so it’s right for everybody.”
Wentz, the union leader, said he raised the issue in part because of recent turnover on the school board. Five of the seven members took their ceremonial oath of office this month.
Most board members contacted for this story would not say whether they would propose or support changes to the non-discrimination statement or other policies.
Ben Blankley, who represents District 1, said he would support updating the non-discrimination statement to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
“Not only is it the right thing to do for the marginalized, but it matches what many large Wichita businesses have already uncontroversially implemented,” Blankley said in an e-mail.