Out In West Palm Beach
April 28, 2009
(West Palm Beach, Florida) More than 19 years after first being asked to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, members of Palm Beach County's school board unanimously voted this evening to amend the school district's Equal Opportunity Policy and its Policy Prohibiting Discrimination and Harassment to include "sexual orientation" and "gender identity or expression." The two policies are expected to be formally adopted at a public hearing within the next few weeks.
"Good things come to those who wait, and we have waited a long, long time," said Rand Hoch, President of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council.
The Council is a local non-profit organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
In 1991, the Council first asked the School Board of Palm Beach County to prohibit discrimination against the school district's gay and lesbian employees.
"Back then, a few members of the school board actually wanted to reserve the right to discriminate against gay and lesbian teachers," said Hoch. "They did not want to have the words 'sexual orientation' in any school district policy."
After months of discussion, in an attempt to compromise, the school board revised the school district's nondiscrimination policies by eliminating the references to all protected classes.
"It was an absurd compromise," said Hoch. "Race, religion, national origin, color, sex, age, marital status and handicap were all removed from the school district's nondiscrimination policy."
"The purpose of anti-discrimination policies is to inform employers and employees what is prohibited," Hoch told The Palm Beach Post at the time. "Unless you are a civil rights lawyer, this policy will not let you know what is prohibited."
The school district's compromise policy was short lived.
In 1996, the US Supreme Court addressed the issue in the landmark gay rights case Romer v. Evans.
Writing for the majority Justice Anthony Kennedy noted, "Enumeration is the essential device used to make the duty not to discriminate concrete and to provide guidance for those who must comply."
As a result, the school board restored the listing of protected classes in the district's anti-bias policies - but still refused to add sexual orientation.
In 2002, the Council renewed its efforts to have the school board take steps to protect gay and lesbian students and employees from discrimination and harassment. Over the years that followed, the school board made painfully incremental progress.
The Council's first priority was to protect public schools students who were being subjected to harassment at school.
After extensive lobbying by the Council, in 2003 the school board adopted a policy protecting students against harassment based on sexual orientation. Following additional lobbying by the Council, in 2008, the school board agreed to include gender identity or expression.
In 2006, the school district adopted a commercial nondiscrimination policy that prohibited the school board from contracting with any business that discriminated on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or disability. The policy was amended in 2009 to include gender identity or expression.
"The school district's policy required contractors to affirm that they would not discriminate against gay men and lesbians," said Hoch. "But until now, the school board showed little interest in a policy that would impose the identical requirements on the School District of Palm Beach County."
Noting the inconsistencies among the school districts various nondiscrimination policies, the Council repeatedly asked the school board to conform all of the nondiscrimination policies to each other and to the applicable anti-discrimination laws.
"It should not have taken so many years to persuade the school board to protect gay and lesbian employees from discrimination," said Hoch.