The Howard County School Board took the following action at its Oct. 25 meeting. For more information, call 992-0500.

DISCRIMINATION PENALTIES -- In a 4-to-1 vote, the board approved an anti-discrimination policy, effective immediately, that permits school officials to fire teachers or school staff members found to have discriminated against students.

The new policy, proposed by a committee of citizens and school staff, also permits school officials to reprimand or suspend students or staff members found guilty of insensitive or degrading behavior toward others. Students also may be expelled for such offenses. Board member Dana Hanna voted against the changes.

While the new policy does not specify what acts of discrimination might be grounds for dismissal, it states that "any act of bias, discrimination, insensitivity or disrespect toward any person due to their age, creed, ethnic background, mental and physical development, race, gender, job classification, socio-economic status or special need" will be considered violations.

The new policy specifically protects gay students from harassment by teachers and fellow students. The board amended the original policy revision to prohibit "homophobic behavior" after several representatives of gay rights organizations and the gay student union at the University of Maryland urged the board to include language that would ban discrimination based on people's sexual preferences.

They said this was needed because of incidents of verbal and physical attacks on gay students at some schools and colleges, though they did not cite any incidents in county schools.

Under the new policy, alleged offenses will be reported to school supervisors and the school system's director of human relations. School principals and departmental supervisors will then hold conferences "to inform and enlighten" employees or students accused of violating the policy, and, depending upon the case, can also reprimand, suspend or terminate school employees.

Principals can recommend that students be reprimanded, suspended or expelled, as the case warrants, school officials said.

School officials said the schools' existing human relations policy, enacted in 1980, needed strengthening because of a growing "insensitivity" in society as well as local schools, though they cited no specific incidents of discrimination or insensitivity in county schools.