The Hamilton School Board has voted not to include sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class in the district’s anti-bullying policy.

After a lengthy debate amongst the board and several emotional comments from the public, board members Nancy Ballance, Jim Shea, Demeris Moore and chairman David Bedey voted to remove the sexual orientation language from the proposed anti-bullying policy (No. 3005).

Board members Corinne Gantt, Bonnie Wickham and Jerry Jessee voted to include the language.

The board also voted to approve a new policy manual for the district on a 6-0 vote, with one board member abstaining. Tuesday night’s vote came after two meetings this month that drew hundreds of people speaking both for and against including the language.

The local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) had petitioned the board to include sexual orientation in the sections on bullying, equal employment opportunity and equal educational opportunity in the updated policy manual.

The board voted 6-1, with Jerry Jesse the lone dissenting vote, to not include the sexual orientation language in either the equal employment or equal education policies.

Board chairman David Bedey said he voted against including the language because he thought the school district already had a robust anti-bullying policy.

“Everyone agreed, I believe, that the policy already makes it clear that the district does not tolerate bullying of any kind,” Bedey said. “There were some board members who saw that removing the specific language and leaving it a general prohibition was showing a strengthened commitment to the non-toleration of mistreatment of students.”

Bedey said the argument by the majority of the board was a pragmatic one against the inclusion of protected classes beyond those mandated by federal law.

“The identification of a specific protected class opens the district to frivolous lawsuits and intervention by outside agencies in any case in which discrimination is alleged,” he said. “And in many cases, attorneys allege discrimination regardless of the issue. It’s my position that the district’s uniform grievance procedure is an adequate method to resolve these things. We do not condone or tolerate discrimination, but we believe we have a method to deal with it.”

Several citizens told the board that they believe homosexuality is immoral and an affront to the Christian faith.

Local PFLAG chapter leader Terry Moran, who has a lesbian daughter and identifies herself as a devout Christian, responded by speaking to the board from a prepared statement.

“Nearly all parents who have a homosexual child experience the grief process and are deeply saddened by the difficulties they know their child and family will experience due to prejudice,” she said. “Most parents realized that their child was ‘intrinsically different’ from the norm, around the age that sexual orientation is expressed. We have experienced that our children are innately born with a homosexual orientation, just as heterosexuals are innately born with their sexual orientation. Please listen to us as parents, because we know who our children are better than anyone else. We take offense with the language that sexual orientation is a ‘lifestyle choice.’ Why would anyone choose to be homosexual and experience the rejection and discrimination that all too frequently prevails?”

Moran said that because PFLAG is a secular organization, the views she expressed at the board meeting are her own.

“They think that homosexuality is immoral, and I spoke directly to that,” she said. “I think that there is another perspective that needs to be heard and they aren’t the only ones that have a Christian viewpoint that are passionate about their viewpoint. It is my personal Christian faith that drives me to be passionate. We are only hearing from one side of the Christian tradition. I do really believe that there are more perspectives than just the fundamentalist perspective.”

Bullying is a very real issue, Moran said, and she knows first-hand from living in the Bitterroot and having a homosexual child that life isn’t easy for an adolescent who comes out.

“Kids have attempted suicide in this valley, in large part because of bullying,” she said. “We have to protect the mental well-being of students. We are here for students and families.”

Moran said that although she was disappointed with the board’s decision, she thinks PFLAG won a small victory.

“We do believe that bringing forth our proposals of changing the current policy did in fact increase awareness of the bullying situation and the need of the community to act on this,” she said. “We think we have improved that awareness and improved the situation of students, even though we did not get the outcome that we were hoping for. Our concern is for students and their safety and their well-being. We are satisfied with that. It was worth our endeavors. There were some gains here for students.”

Reporter David Erickson can be reached at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

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