- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Students who call each other names or joke about someone’s sexuality face suspension under a regulation passed this week by the Maryland State Board of Education.

The board voted 8-3 Tuesday to include language in its student-safety standards that specifically protects homosexual students from harassment in school settings. However, school officials would not specify yesterday what would constitute verbal harassment.

Maryland is the ninth state to ban discrimination against students based on their sexual orientation.

The vote ended a four-year battle on the issue. Those who opposed specific protections for groups such as homosexuals said the current student-safety regulations covered all groups, and that it would be inappropriate to introduce discussions of sexual orientation to classrooms.

“Somewhere along the way we’re going to find out that this is a door-opener to a larger-scale involvement in sexual orientation in a school setting,” said Clarence A. Hawkins, one of the three state board members who voted against the new language.

“If we say we want safety in all schools for all children, then it should mean all, and I don’t think you need to separate them out by category,” he said.

Board President Marilyn D. Maultsby, who voted for the proposal, said homosexual students are targeted more than most other groups of students. She also said it is more serious to harass students for their homosexuality than it is to harass them for other reasons.

“Harassment because of their sexual orientation is more egregious than for an issue such as acne,” Mrs. Maultsby said.

Proponents of the specification said the language ensures that disciplinary action will be taken when homosexual students are targeted by either verbal or physical assaults.

Patty Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County public schools, said some students may not realize that their actions and words are hurtful, but that other students may interpret them as insults.

“We have to help them to live and learn with one another,” Ms. Caplan said.

County school boards will determine what constitutes such harassment and how it will be punished, and each case will be handled individually by school administrators. Howard, Montgomery and Anne Arundel county schools have adopted in their codes of conduct language against harassment because of sexual orientation.

Disciplinary actions that result from violations of the new guidelines can be appealed all the way to the state board.

Board member Philip S. Benzil, a retired dentist from Westminster who served 15 years on the Carroll County Board of Education, introduced in 1999 the idea of language protecting homosexuals. Mr. Benzil did not return phone calls yesterday, but last year, he told The Washington Times that intolerable behavior against homosexual students included “mocking, isolation and exclusion from social groups.”

Mr. Benzil’s proposal was opposed by conservative groups and legislators, and withdrawn. In 2001 and last year, the proposal was reintroduced, only to be withdrawn again.

The old language in the student-safety regulation said, “All students in Maryland’s public schools have a right to educational environments that are safe, appropriate for academic achievement, and free from any form of harassment.”

The new language added the phrase “without exception and regardless of race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, sexual orientation, language, socioeconomic status, age, or disability” after the words “all students.”

The board heard testimony on the issue from current and former students, as well as parents. Mr. Hawkins said some students said they had been abused verbally, threatened and even beaten for their homosexuality.

Some parents testified that like Mr. Hawkins, they did not like the idea of class discussions on sexual orientation during student orientation in the fall.

The Carroll County School Board issued a statement opposing the addition, saying it was redundant. School board President Susan G. Holt said she did not think the new language would increase protection for homosexual students.

“Trying to get into political correctness isn’t where we should be. We should be focused on student achievement,” Mrs. Holt said.

Mr. Hawkins said, “Schools are going off into things that homes ought to handle. For as good a job we do educating our children, it’s amazing all the extra things we put into the curriculum.”

Voting for the proposal on the state board were Mrs. Maultsby, Vice President JoAnn T. Bell, Mr. Benzil, Walter S. Levin, Dunbar Brooks, Karabelle A.L. Pizzigati, Walter Sondheim Jr. and Caroline Gifford, a student representative from Wilde Lake High School.

In addition to Mr. Hawkins, the board members who voted against the proposal were John L. Wisthoff, a math professor at Anne Arundel Community College, and Edward L. Root, a retired educator from Frostburg State University.

Members are appointed by the governor to staggered terms on the 12-person board.

Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the state board, said cases will be initiated by victims.

“A teacher or a student can say, ‘I’m being harassed,’ and then it will go to the local board,” he said. He added that students who are accused of harassment will receive due process.

“They’ll be able to plead their case to the principal, just like they were caught chewing gum in class,” Mr. Reinhard said.

The most up-to-date records at the State Board of Education contain statistics on the 2000-01 school year. During that year, Maryland schools reported 612 incidents of sexual harassment, 93 incidents of sexual assault, 1,763 verbal threats by students to other students, and 6,614 physical attacks on students by peers, according to Mr. Reinhard.

Each of those incidents resulted in suspension, he said.

Mr. Reinhard said Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools, will meet with county administrators to discuss how they could specify what constitutes harassment and what the penalties will be for such behavior.

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