- Grove City, Pennsylvania

March 12, 2014

School harassment policy talks continue

Supt. offers new wording on debated issue

By Felicia A. Petro/Senior Reporter
Allied News

GROVE CITY — The best way to define harassment policies in Grove City schools persists.

At Monday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Richard Mextorf revisited the issue, saying he had “alternative wording” he hoped would resolve the ongoing quandary.

During a rewrite of the district’s policies and procedure manual in the past 15 months, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association – which is assisting in the rewrite – suggested adding “sexual orientation,” “social status” and “economic circumstances” as protected classes in the harassment policies, in addition to other groups federally protected for race, religion, sex, national origin and disability.

For months, residents have particularly spoken against the sexual orientation term, presenting articles stating that it can be used as a gateway for radical gay activism in schools – namely, by silencing any opposition by calling it harassment or bullying.

Such silencing has resulted in successful lawsuits in the state, which also concerned some board members about the added classifications not being federally mandated like the others.

In January, the board agreed to remove terms and reexamine the issue; however, last month four out of seven members voted against leaving the terms out of the harassment policies. Two additional school directors were absent from the meeting.

Because beliefs about the issue are hotly divided, Mextorf wanted to find an alternative to please both sides.

On Monday, he suggested that harassment be prohibited against the federally protected groups “and other protected classes as identified by state or federal law,” leaving out the terms “sexual orientation,” “social status” and “economic circumstances.” 

The new wording would ensure that any new group added by the federal government as a protected class in the future would be covered by the district, Mextorf noted.

Director Roberta Hensel said she was most concerned with kids who were harassed because of economic circumstances.

Being a district teacher for 35 years, “having seen the way children of lower economic standards is treated, I have no patience for that,” she said. “Those poor kids live a tough life ... and they’re picked on because don’t have the right clothes, they’re the free-lunch kids or have no support at home because mom has to work two jobs. They don’t need to be picked at all the time.”

Kids who are overweight or have acne “get picked on more” than the other classes in the policies, added director Paul Gubba. The additional classes are important, “but there’s such a push to be recognized,” he said. “In a sense, some people want to do them a favor; ‘You’re not mandated but we’ll recognize you to do you a favor.’”

Gubba and director Vern Saylor said harassment isn’t tolerated for any of the district’s kids.

Therefore, listing classifications “is absolutely ridiculous,” Saylor said. “You know what’s going to happen? No matter what we say with the policy, someone is going to come in and feel excluded because their (group) is not stated – but they’re all protected. It’s a frustrating policy. It really just should say, ‘Every freakin' kid.’ Three words. Just put them in.”

The policies “will have little to do with the day-to-day process,” Mextorf said. “If a kid (who is being harassed) comes in, we’re not going to say, ‘Sorry, you aren’t part of a protected class.’”

Director Scott Somora wondered if all the classes could be removed from the policies and the district could add “all,” he said – or are the policies federally mandated.

The traditional classes are generally used in federal laws protecting them from discrimination, although that could overlap with bullying and harassment, according to information provided by board President Sue Herman from PSBA’s policy specialist.

Additional information from PSBA from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights states that sexual orientation isn’t a federally protected class, but discrimination based on sex can apply to sexual orientation in some instances.

Mextorf said he would have to ask legal counsel if the district needs to have a list of the federally protected classes for the harassment policies.

Carolyn Oppenheimer – who has been against the sexual orientation term – believed Herman inappropriately inferred at last month’s meeting that PSBA’s lawyers were superior to five attorneys consulted by board members and citizens about wording in the harassment policies.

“I believe that was inaccurate and inappropriate of a board member. It’s healthy to get legal viewpoint of both sides of controversial issues,” she said.

The PSBA lawyers “came up short on case law on these issues,” Oppenheimer said, adding that three classifications was “troublesome,” according to those five attorneys. “PSBA lawyers are highly qualified but not infallible,” she said. “They may suggest something we should revise or reject ... (because) it doesn’t fit with the school district, its goals, ideology or school makeup.”

The PSBA information provided by Herman at last month’s meeting “didn’t feel proper,” Somora added. It was before the board’s vote on the three classifications in the harassment policies, rather than offered at a workshop meeting, he noted.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate ... to use the office of president to sway,” Somora said. Researching Robert's Rules of Order, one section states that the president of a governing board “should have the least to say on a pending issue,” he said.

Herman declined to comment on Somora’s and Oppenheimer’s remarks after the meeting.

Published March 5, 2014, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.