Knoxville mayor urges school board not to remove LGBT terms from harassment policy

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — In a week, the Knox County Board of Education will vote on changes to school harassment policies. If passed, the policies would do away with the language to protect gay, lesbian and transgender students and staff.

On Friday, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero sent a letter to members of the Knox County Board of Education and Superintendent Bob Thomas. In the letter, Mayor Rogero expressed concerns with the changes to the harassment policies.

“My concern as you consider the proposed changes is that removing the existing language in the school board’s policy will send the opposite message to your employees and your students, even if that is not what you intend. I have heard many questions and fears from members of the local LGBT community, as well as Knox County parents and teachers, about what the consequences might be of deleting that language,” said Mayor Rogero in the latter.

Mayor Madeline Rogero marches in the Pride Fest parade in Downtown Knoxville in 2012. She was the first Knoxville mayor to march in the parade.

Rogero said she approved the addition of the categories of sexual orientation and gender identity to the non-discrimination policy for city employees. Since those categories are not explicitly protected under federal law, Mayor Rogero said she wanted to make sure employees knew they were in a welcoming and inclusive workplace.

Last week, students at Bearden High School and L&N STEM Academy protested changes to the policy. The Gay Straight Alliance at Bearden High School shared a video of their protest inside the school.

One student can be heard saying, “I don’t want to take a step backwards.” Mutual feelings were expressed by the Equality Club at L&N STEM Academy.

Read more: Knox County school board to vote on LGBT protective language; Bearden students plan protest

Knox County School Board members said the removal of the terms does not signify that they are no longer protected classes. However, in the same policies, they are adding the term “creed” as a protected class.

School Board members will meet on October 9 and 11 to vote on the changes.

Read Mayor Madeline Rogero’s Letter to the Knox County Board of Education and Superintendent Bob Thomas

As Mayor, I have always said that I want Knoxville to be a welcoming city for everybody. As the Board of Education considers possible changes to the language in the school system’s harassment policies, I would like to offer some personal perspective. I rarely take a position on school board policy, but this is about who we are as a community and the message we send to our residents and the outside world. I will also be issuing this statement publicly.

In 2012, I proposed and City Council approved the addition of the categories of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ to our non-discrimination policy for City employees. I did this after consultation with our Law Department, who assured me that adding these categories created no conflict whatsoever with existing state and federal protections. I believed that it was important to send a clear message to our employees and our community that discrimination in any form will not be tolerated in our organization. Since those categories are not explicitly protected under federal law, we wanted to ensure that everyone at the City of Knoxville understood our expectations in creating a welcoming and inclusive workplace.

Knox County Commission adopted similar language to protect County employees in 2013. Other local institutions including the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Valley Authority have similar explicit protections for those categories. So do many of our largest local private employers, including Alcoa and Scripps Networks.

My concern as you consider the proposed changes is that removing the existing language in the school board’s policy will send the opposite message to your employees and your students, even if that is not what you intend. I have heard many questions and fears from members of the local LGBT community, as well as Knox County parents and teachers, about what the consequences might be of deleting that language. The Knoxville Police Department works closely with Knox County Schools on anti-bullying initiatives, and I appreciate the commitment you have all shown to that effort. We know that statistically, LGBT students are among the most vulnerable to bullying and among the most at risk of self-harm and suicide.

I urge you to consider carefully the message that may be sent by the proposed changes in the policy. If there is a need to add the word ‘sex’ to the existing language, that could be done without removing any existing protections.

I would be happy to discuss the issue with you. Thank you for your service to the students, teachers and residents of Knox County.

Sincerely,

Madeline

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