Last night, the Davis Joint Unified School Board approved language for a strong new anti-harassment policy. One of the chief complaints made by the Fischers was the discrepancy in the punishment for racially based harassment versus harassment based on sexual orientation or the perception of sexual orientation. The direction taken last night by the school board goes a long way toward remedying that situation.
All of this will need to be heard again, perhaps as soon as next week for final approval, but the first steps taken last night were very important. The direction set by the board was crystal clear–the administration knows exactly what the board wants on this matter. All civil rights type harassment were subsumed into a single category in the district’s punishment matrix. That includes sexual orientation and also gender identity. There is still a sliding in terms of punishments depending on the number and severity of the offenses, but the language in the code was shifted from “may be disciplined” to “shall be disciplined.” This eliminates any ambiguity. Students know that if they engage in harassment using epithets that are racial or based on sexual orientation there will be immediate and severe penalties, including suspension. Suspension is the penalty with the teeth.
But Board President Jim Provenza went even further. First, he proposed language changes that directed staff to be responsible to monitor and report such incidents. There is some question as to whether this constitutes new duties that would have to be handled under the collective bargaining agreement. However, the direction from the school board on this issue was very clear and now it is up to the Administration and their legal team to write up a policy that will fit.
The most impressive part is that there came a point when Superintendent David Murphy seemed to be hedging in terms of the clarity of language and both Provenza and Keltie Jones pushed him very hard to ensure that any ambiguity was taken out. Murphy suggested that the Principals already knew these rules, but Provenza and Jones really forced him to make the language strong and unambiguous so that there could be no mistake what the board’s policy and direction were.
Moreover, the board was giving direction to give very strong advertising of the message that this behavior is unacceptable. It will be written into the student handbook and to some extent into the employee handbook as well, however, again that issue is a bit more tricky due to collective bargaining agreements.
One of the things that upset the Fischer’s was the ambiguity of the current policy and the discrepancy between the punishments for smoking pot, calling someone a racial epithet, and calling someone an anti-gay epithet. They saw that there was very serious harassment that seemed to be punished very lightly.
I have been very critical of the school district’s handling of this matter, but what I saw last night was very positive and very impressive. All five members of the board of trustees were in strong support of these changes. Mr. Provenza and Ms. Jones were very strong and forceful advocates for this policy and it was impressive to watch them press this issue home.
This was a much needed policy change. It puts harassment based on sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation, and gender identity into a class of civil rights offenses. It differentiates the use of these words as epithets versus merely saying the words. And it gives district personnel strong guidance as to how to handle such future incidents.
It is unfortunate that it took an incident such as this to call the board’s attention to the holes in their policy. That is the nature of government it appears, changes only occur when there are problems that arise. It is unfortunate that Mr. Fischer and his son had to suffer for these lack of policies. However, last night was definitely a good night for them. The school board came through with some very important measures and I believe, only as the result of the actions taken by Mr. Fischer and the attention that he drew to this issue did these changes occur.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting