Saturday, October 20, 2018

Palm Beach County School Board doubles down on policies to protect LGBTQ students

By Sonja Isger, Palm Beach Post staff writer
October 20, 2018
This month, the Palm Beach County School Board amended its policies in not one, but two places, to once again alert its 22,000 employees that the district’s mission includes casting protection and promising equity for students who went for decades unmentioned by name within those pages: the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or ‘questioning’ students.
To be clear (as mud?) those five words, commonly boiled down to “LGBTQ,” aren’t always the specific words they used, but the meaning of these policies is certain.
The verbal nod comes at a time when hostility toward these students appears to be on the rise, according to one recent national survey.
“It’s important to have it in policy so the students have something that they can say, ‘It’s in our school district policy that I’m protected and this is a place I’m seen,’ and ‘It’s OK for me to be out in my school and I won’t be hurt or hindered because of that,’ ” said Amanda Cemente, youth service director at Compass, the LGBTQ support center in Lake Worth, who sat for a year on a committee to write one of those chapters in the district’s tomes.
“We’re really excited it’s finally coming out,” Cemente said.
The first reminder of these protections is the district’s updated “Commitment to the Student,” which was approved by the School Board in the first week of October.
That policy affirms that educators will not harass or discriminate against any student on the basis of a long list of characteristics from religion to ethnicity. The list was expanded to cover political beliefs, marital status, linguistic preference and “sexual orientation, gender, gender expression and/or gender identity.”
The second is one that has been in the works for more than a year — the district’s “Equity Policy.”
The Equity Policy’s stated mission is “to show School Board’s commitment to eliminating race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability or socioeconomic status as predictors for academic success.”
Early versions stated that teachers throughout the county would include the contributions of African Americans, indigenous people and women to the United States and the world in their lessons. In the past month, at the behest of the board, instruction will also “expand the knowledge, understanding, and awareness of LGBTQ studies and the LGBTQ social movements.”
About 1.3 million kids or roughly 8 percent of all high school students in the nation report being lesbian, gay or bisexual, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Those kids have a rough time at school, with more than 80 percent of LGBTQ students saying they were harassed or assaulted on campus in 2017 — one in six of them reporting they were physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender expression, according to a survey by GLSEN, formerly the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
And it’s not always the kids who are the bullies.
More than half of the students in GLSEN’s survey reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff. Nearly three-quarters said teachers and staff made negative remarks about gender expression.
“We weren’t waiting for policy to protect children,” Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald said. “We were doing what’s right.”
The first mention in policy of these protections appeared in 2003, when the board adopted a policy to protect students against harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, according to retired Judge Rand Hoch, president and founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council.
Five years later, the state threatened to withhold money from districts that didn’t enact a stand-alone anti-bullying policy. Palm Beach County was among those to go beyond the state’s demands and spell out that protected classes would include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, Hoch said.
Oswald said when flags have been raised by students, administrators have sought solutions on that campus. It’s been a school-by-school approach to making sure “we handle these things appropriately,” things like negotiating which restroom a student should use or calling a student by their chosen name and pronouns.
Still, in a district of more than 180 schools and about 175,000 students, conflicts are bound to arise.
“We had to call on (School Board member) Erica Whitfield to help us with one particular student,” recalled Compass Executive Director Julie Seaver.
A “very bright” high schooler who had gone through years of schools identifying as a male, in name and pronouns that contrast with his official school paperwork was called out by a teacher who refused to use his preferred name, Seaver said.
“So this teacher mispronounced his name in class and when the rest of the students called that teacher out, the teacher began with using ‘s/him”’ and ‘s/her’ and ‘it,’ ” Seaver recalled.
Eventually the student was moved out of the class, and the school intervened with some level of training, Whitfield said, confirming the episode happened at a high school in her district that spans an eastern stretch of the county from Lake Worth Road south to Clint Moore Road in Boca Raton.
“It definitely happens,′ Whitfield said. Her take is that teachers aren’t there to publicly discuss the choice of names and pronouns, and they aren’t there to shame them either.
“It’s the same as having a nickname to me. I want the kids to feel welcome,” Whitfield said, noting that she’s spoken to several students at Compass who have left public schools. “And to me that’s unacceptable.”
Oswald said the district’s guidance counselors have been trained in navigating this changing landscape of gender and gender identity in a way that protects students. Their mission is to share that knowledge on their campus, he said.
“It’s one thing to change policy, it’s another to change minds and hearts,” Oswald said. “These are complicated issues. We can’t push too much too fast.”
But having policy to back it up is imperative, Hoch said.
“You are educating people who work for the school district from principals to those who serve fish sticks in the lunchroom that these kids need to be protected and it is their job to speak out when they see someone being harassed or bullied,” Hoch said. “These are points you can’t emphasize often enough.”

Federal judge to decide whether to block South Florida laws banning youth conversion therapy

Conservative Christian therapists argue the bans violate their free speech rights and religious beliefs

By John Riley, Metro Weekly

October 19, 2018

Photo: Sander van der Wel, via Wikimedia.
A pair of therapists in Florida have asked a federal judge to issue an injunction preventing the Palm Beach County Commission and the city of Boca Raton from enforcing their laws that prohibit therapists from subjecting youth to conversion therapy.
Robert Otto and Julie Hamilton filed a lawsuit back in June alleging that the county and city bans on conversion therapy infringe upon their First Amendment rights to free speech.
Both Otto and Hamilton have argued that the law essentially gags them and prevents them from counseling youth who are struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity, for fear that they will be fined or even threatened with a loss of their license.
Horatio Mihet, a lawyer with the conservative advocacy group Liberty Counsel who is representing the two therapists, said that an injunction is necessary to remedy the harm caused by the “intrusion” of the local government into his clients’ practices, reports the Palm Beach Post.
Mihet claims that his clients do not engage in extreme measures such as shock therapy, aversion therapy, or inducing nausea or vomiting to dissuade youth from embracing homosexuality or transgenderism.
But he also says the laws tie therapists’ hands and effectively prevent youth who do not want to embrace an LGBTQ identity from being able to seek help.
But attorneys representing Boca Raton and Palm Beach County say the law does not infringe upon the therapists’ rights, and is intended to protect LGBTQ youth from harm and a series of mental health problems — from depression to suicidal ideation — that they can suffer from if subjected to conversion therapy.
Assistant Palm Beach County Attorney Rachel Fahey says there is nothing in the law that prevents therapists like Otto and Hamilton from counseling or providing “talk therapy” to struggling youth.
But the law intends to put clients in the driver’s seat when it comes to achieving the goals they set for themselves.
For instance, therapists should not inject their own personal beliefs or attempt to sway clients away from embracing an LGBTQ identity if the youth wishes to be more comfortable with it. 
“Sexual orientation and gender identity can’t be changed by a licensed provider,” Fahey said, noting that there is scant evidence showing that conversion therapy actually works.
Most major medical and mental health organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Counseling Association, have concluded that conversion therapy is harmful to the mental and emotional well-being of teens who are subjected to it.
Palm Beach County and Boca Raton are among a number of municipalities or counties that have banned conversion therapy on minors in the absence of action by state legislatures. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have already adopted similar laws.
Furthermore, Fahey notes, the county commission was careful to craft the ban to protect therapists’ free speech rights. For example, no mental health practitioner is banned from publicly expressing support for conversion therapy.
A therapist could also refer a client to religious leaders, who are exempt from the law as long as they’re acting as spiritual advisers rather than as licensed therapists. 
Rosenberg has asked attorneys on both sides to submit written arguments before she decides whether or not to issue a preliminary injunction that would go into effect while the case is argued in the courts. She gave no indication when she expects to issue a ruling.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

West Palm Beach Again Earns Top Score in LGBTQ Equality

(West Palm Beach, Florida) The City of West Palm Beach has again earned a perfect score on the sixth annual Human Rights Campaign Foundation Municipal Equality Index (MEI) ranking of cities across the United States. Nationally, 78 cities earned perfect scores.

The MEI examines how inclusive municipal laws, policies and services are of the LGBTQ people who live and work there. Cities are rated based on non-discrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement, and City leadership's public position on equality. The 2018 MEI is the sixth annual edition and rates more than 500 cities from every state in the nation.

"The perfect score demonstrates the clear-cut commitment elected officials in West Palm Beach have made to the LGBTQ community over the past 30 years," said retired judge Rand Hoch, President and Founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC)..

PBCHRC has long been Palm Beach County's most effective civil rights organization. The nonpartisan independent nonprofit is dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Over past three decades, PBCHRC has been responsible for the enactment of more than 130 laws and policies providing equal protection, rights and benefits for Palm Beach County's LGBTQ community.

"Our city's inclusive laws and policies attract amazing people to
move to West Palm Beach," said Mayor Jeri Muoio. "West Palm Beach is a wonderful place for LGBTQ people - and others - to live, study, play, work, raise families and retire."

Of the twenty Florida municipalities participating in the MEI, only six (West Palm Beach, Miami Beach, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Wilton Manors) scored 100 points. 
Thanks to Muoio's leadership - along with that of former mayors Jeff Koons,  Nancy Graham and Lois Frankel -- West Palm Beach has long been in the forefront of LGBTQ equality in the State of Florida

In 1990, city commissioners established the West Palm Beach Employment Practices Review Commission to recommend improvements to the city's personnel practices and procedures. Hoch, at the time a labor lawyer who represented the city's municipal workers unions, served as the commission's Chairman Pro Tempore. The blue ribbon panel's final report included recommendations to improve the work environment for the city's lesbian and gay employees. Within months, those recommendations were unanimously adopted by the city commission.

The following year, West Palm Beach became the first public employer in Florida to enact an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public employment. In 1992, West Palm Beach became the first public employer in Florida to provide domestic partnership benefits for municipal employees

City leaders recognized that while the laws and policies had been put into place to help  gay and lesbian municipal employees, action also needed to be taken to address discrimination faced by the city's lesbian and gay residents. Therefore, in 1991, the city commission voted to prohibit the use of any public facilities or any public funding to any entities which had discriminated against members of a variety of protected classes - including gays and lesbians.

In 1994, the city commission enacted the West Palm Beach Equal Opportunity Ordinance, which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in private and public employment, housing and public accommodation. (The ordinance was amended in 2007 to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression.)

Weeks after the ordinance was enacted, the local Christian Coalition collected enough signatures to hold a special election to repeal the ordinance.  However, then-Mayor Nancy Graham stepped forward to lead the "'No on 1!" campaign to ensure that the newly enacted gay rights law remained on the books.

After a bitter and divisive campaign, West Palm Beach voters soundly defeated the repeal effort 56% to 44%. This historic effort marked the first time that Florida voters defeated an anti-gay referendum.

Since marriage equality was slow in coming to Florida, during the period when same-sex marriage was prohibited, Mayor Muoio repeatedly championed laws and policies to ensure that gay and lesbian municipal employees with domestic partners received the same benefits and take home pay as married opposite employees were entitled to receive.

Even when faced with federal laws that denied workers with domestic partners benefits granted to married employees, Mayor Muoio found her way to provide them for city employees. She persuaded her colleagues to extend equal health insurance continuation coverage (COBRA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits to city employees with domestic partners. She also convinced city commissioners to provide federal tax equity reimbursements for employees insuring their domestic partners, since married employees were exempt from that taxation under federal law.

Mayor Muoio also led the effort to enact the West Palm Beach Equal Benefits Ordinance, which required contractors doing business with the city to provide identical benefits to both married employees and employees with domestic partners.

In 2015, the city commissioners updated the Equal Opportunity Ordinance by expanding the definition of "public accommodations" to prohibit consumer discrimination (e.g., "shopping while black"). The law also prohibits businesses in the wedding industry from discriminating against lesbian and gay couples. 
In 2016, West Palm Beach became the first city in Palm Beach County to prohibit the discredited practice of conversion therapy for minors.  Conversion therapy encompasses a range of discredited counseling practices by which health care providers or counselors seek to change a person's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression through aversion treatment.   

Just last month, the West Palm Beach adopted an LGBTQ-inclusive resolution affirming its commitment to address and eliminate bullying at city facilities and in city programs. 

Most recently, in a move to address the concerns of transgender and gender-nonconforming residents, Mayor Muoio has directed city staff to install new signage by year's end designating all single-stall restrooms in municipal buildings as "all-gender"
When presented with opportunities to amend the state's civil rights laws to protect LGBTQ people, Florida Legislators have repeatedly refused to do so. In contrast, 22 states (and the District of Columbia) protect their residents from employment discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation.  Nineteen of these states (and the District of Columbia) also provide similar protections on the basis of their gender identity. 

"Since the Florida Legislature has repeatedly refused to enact LGBTQ-inclusive civil rights laws, it is imperative that municipal and county leaders throughout our state work diligently to enact local laws and policies providing LGBTQ Floridians with equal protections and benefits," said Hoch. "All LGBTQ Floridians, regardless of where they live or work, should be protected from discrimination and harassment."

Monday, October 1, 2018

West Palm Beach Resolution Takes Aim At Bullying

September 25, 2018

West Palm Beach City Commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution yesterday aimed at eliminating bullying and harassment in city facilities and at programs the city provides at the Mandel Public Library, as well as at the community centers at Coleman, Gaines, Howard and South Olive Parks.

The resolution was proposed by City Commissioner Kelly Shoaf, following a request by the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC) - Florida's oldest independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
PBCHRC provided Shoaf with examples of children who were bullied not only because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, but also because of other personal characteristics such as race, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability, physical appearance, weight, citizenship status, economic status and academic ability.

"One of the most important tasks city officials are charged with is ensuring the safety and well-being of our youngest residents," said PBCHRC President and Founder Rand Hoch. "Commissioner Shoaf immediately realized that the city must do more to eliminate bullying."

"Bullying and harassment can interfere with a child's ability to participate in our city's programs and activities," said Shoaf. "All children deserve to be able to play together in an environment that is inclusive and free from bullying."

According to the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, more than 20 percent of students experienced bullying.

In addition to declaring the elimination of bullying as a goal of the city, the resolution also affirms the city's commitment to support local resources aimed at addressing bullying and requires the city's youth programs to have anti-bullying policies.