FWISD to update bullying policy

Director of counseling says officials did not realize sexual orientation didn’t include gender identity, expression, and applauds new bullying awareness campaign

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Report nash@dallasvoice.com

FORT WORTH — When the Dallas Independent School District was lauded recently for becoming the first school district in the state to approve an LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policy, officials in the Fort Worth Independent School District reacted with consternation.
The Fort Worth District, officials said, had passed such a policy months before, in March.

But the problem, Kathryn Everest, director of guidance and counseling for the Fort Worth district, said this week, was that “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

And what school officials didn’t know was that the term “sexual orientation” does not include issues of gender identity and gender expression, Everest said.

“Our policy protects all students,” Everest said, adding that she initially believed simply saying “all students” would be adequate. But she said she understands the need for more specific wording after discussion with those in the community advocating for changes in the policy.

Everest said that she met Monday afternoon, Nov. 22, with gay Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns and Jon Nelson of Fairness Fort Worth. Both men, she said, have pledged to help the district fine-tune the wording of its policies.

“We want to make it plain that everyone is included. Now that we have found out what we didn’t know — that sexual orientation doesn’t include gender identity and gender expression — we will make those changes. We’re not fighting it, and we’re not intimidated by it. We just didn’t know,” Everest said.

She added that the policy in question relates specifically to students. The district also has a mirror policy protecting faculty and staff members, and it, too, will be updated, Everest said.

“We want our policies to align with the city of Fort Worth’s policy,” she said. The Fort Worth City Council voted last year to amend its nondiscrimination ordinance, which already included protections based on sexual orientation, to include specific protections based on gender identity and gender expression.

Another point of confusion centered on the wording of Fort Worth’s anti-bullying policy itself. The policy defines bullying, gives examples and outlines the procedure for reporting incidences of bullying and for investigating those reports. But it does not enumerate specific groups protected under the policy, as the Dallas ISD policy does.

Everest explained this week that the Fort Worth ISD’s “Freedom from Bullying” policy is an extension of the district’s “Freedom from Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Policy, which reads:

“The District prohibits discrimination including harassment, against any student on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, or on any other basis prohibited by law, that adversely affects the student.”

Everest said FWISD officials now recognize that, technicalities aside, the bullying policy should also include that wording — with the addition of gender identity and gender expression — so that it is clear.

Although gender identity and gender expression were not among the protected categories listed, evidence of the district’s intention to provide protections based on those categories exists in the discrimination policy, under the category of examples:

“Examples of prohibited harassment  may include offensive or derogatory language directed at another person’s religious beliefs or practices, accent, skin color, gender identity or need for accommodation … .”

‘It’s not okay’

While the Fort Worth school district may be lagging behind the Dallas ISD in perfecting the wording of its nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies, Fort Worth is several steps ahead of Dallas when it comes to it’s anti-bullying campaign, Everest said.

The district implemented the “It’s not okay” campaign at the beginning of the current school year, focusing each month on a different aspect of harassment. Topics are “bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, teen dating violence, suicidal thinking, sexual harassment, use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs and gangs.

The campaign includes efforts to explain each topic and to promote the district’s procedures for reporting and investigating offenses. A primary component, Everest said, is the “Friends 4 Life” hotline that anyone can call to report specific incidents or concerns. Students discovered to be targets of bullying or harassment are paired with counselors who work with them and help them find other resources if necessary, Everest said.

She said students had input in designing the campaign, helping choose the topics and suggesting ways to address each one. The district also has designed posters on each topic to be displayed in schools, as well as billboards that are going up each month around the city.

“By the end of the school year, we will have billboards across the city addressing each one of these topics,” Everest said. “There is a kind of entrenched generational acceptance of certain kinds of harassment and bullying — the idea that it’s just what kids do, and you need to get over it and move on. That’s what we have to change. We have to say to the whole world that it’s not OK.

“And this [campaign] is not just a flash in the pan, not just a one-time thing,” Everest continued. Our goal is to make it an ongoing program, something that is deep and broad and addresses all the angles. That’s how you change the social norms. That’s how you stop the bullying.”

She added, “This is all a learning process for us. We are making corrections and improvements as we go along. We thought we were covering everything, and now that we know we didn’t, we will make the changes we need to make.

“Our goal is to make our entire educational community as safe as possible — our students, our faculty and our staff. And we will do what we need to do to make that happen.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 26, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens