Maryland state education officials have dropped a controversial proposal to ban harassment in schools after conservative groups objected to language singling out gay and lesbian students as one of the groups needing protection.
Although the state Board of Education still plans to take up a similar measure in the fall, the anti-harassment proposal will be amended to simply ban harassment of any student, without specifying individual protected groups.
State education officials had insisted that the proposed regulation would merely address student safety, but they received dozens of angry letters and phone calls from citizens concerned that it would open the door to a wider classroom discussion of homosexuality.
"The intent of the regulation got totally undercut by the focus on [the] 'sexual orientation' phrase," said Ron Peiffer, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
Still, he said, "the issue was much broader than that."
Department officials and board members ended up questioning the wisdom of specifying that some particular groups, and not others, were to be protected from harassment. The proposal originally was supposed to be aired at a public hearing in front of the Board of Education this week. However, in a surprise move at the July 27 board meeting, state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick withdrew the proposal so that it could be amended.
The idea for an anti-harassment regulation stemmed from the work of the state's Education That Is Multicultural task force, which most recently has focused on the problem of lagging grades and test scores among minority students. But in its most recent report, the group also turned its attention to guaranteeing "a safe school environment" to all children.
In its original format, the proposal would have promised schools that are "safe, optimal for academic achievement, and free from harassment" for all students in Maryland, "regardless of but not limited to race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, sexual orientation, language, socioeconomic status, age, and disability."
State officials claimed that most opponents of the proposed policy misunderstood its intent. The regulation, they said, would not have required schools to teach about homosexuality, nor would it have impinged upon hiring and staffing decisions.
But the complaints poured in, including those from state legislators. Peiffer said opposition to the proposal vanished as soon as Grasmick moved to drop the language that singled out specific groups.
Lawrence S. Jacobs, a member of the Safe Schools Coalition of Montgomery County, which championed the original proposal, called Grasmick's decision "a total cave-in."
The policy, he said, "never caused any confusion until the issue was protecting gay and lesbian kids." And he argued that a blanket anti-harassment ban is useless unless it specifies that homosexual students are protected. Gay students are often harassed in schools, he said, and teachers too often let harassers off the hook with a "boys will be boys" attitude.
"It's going to say to people that we don't really mean to protect gays and lesbians, because if we did we'd have a policy," he said.
Doug Stiegler, executive director of Family Protection Lobby, a conservative group based in Carroll County, applauded Grasmick's decision to change the proposal.
Still, Stiegler said he was uncomfortable with any regulation to ban harassment, which he said is too loosely defined. "One person feels harassed because they've been looked at funny, another feels harassed because they've been hit," he said. "Kids are going to say things that are maybe inappropriate, but we shouldn't be penalizing them and clogging up the school disciplinary systems with those cases."
The state Board of Education will schedule another hearing for the amended proposal sometime this fall before voting on it.