State officials weigh changes to anti-bullying rule Park City School District cited in Welcoming Schools debate
The state anti-bullying rule that the Park City School District cited while defending its use of a controversial teacher training program is being revised, and amendments have been scrapped that would have removed explicit protections for students who are bullied because of their race, sexual orientation or gender identity.
The removal of the amendments comes a week before the rule is expected to once again be taken up by a committee that has been attempting to clarify and refine how, exactly, Utah school districts are required to combat bullying, a process that has been ongoing for several years.
The rules operate with the same authority as laws, said Benjamin Rasmussen, who is the Utah State Board of Education’s director of law and professional practices.
An anti-bullying teacher training program was at the heart of a controversy at Trailside Elementary School this fall. The rule being revised, R277-613, is the one the Park City School District cited while defending the program, called Welcoming Schools, in response to a cease-and-desist letter. Opponents have decried Welcoming Schools as a sex education program and referred to it as LGBTQ indoctrination.
The rule mandates districts provide training that addresses bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The proposed amendments would have taken that language out of the rule.
The changes were written by Board Member Scott Hansen, who said his intent was to create a separate rule to deal with incidents of bullying that rise to the level of harassment, like targeting someone based on their gender identity or sexual orientation or targeting classes of people protected under federal legislation like the Civil Rights Act and Title IX.
His draft amendments removed from the existing rule mentions of those protected classes, as well as a requirement that staff trainings target bullying based on race, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation or conformance or non-conformance with stereotypes.
He said he would have included such protections in a separate harassment rule, but his failure to communicate that intent has drawn pushback.
“I’m not anti-LGBTQ,” Hansen said. “My desire is that every child in our schools feels safe and is safe.”
The new proposed changes, which had not been released as of Tuesday afternoon, are scheduled to be heard at the Utah State Board of Education’s Law and Licensing committee meeting Feb. 7. Hansen said the new draft focuses on aligning definitions in the rule with previously passed state law and reforming how incidents of bullying are reported. He said it is important that school districts collect data to know which students are truly vulnerable, and then take steps to protect them.
If recommended, the changes could be approved by the Board of Education in March, then implemented in May after a public comment period.
Hansen stressed that the public will have ample opportunity to weigh in on the rule changes.
Among those lobbying state officials to change the anti-bullying rule was the Pacific Justice Institute, a California-based nonprofit legal organization that specializes in the defense of religious freedom, according to its website.
Its chief counsel, Kevin Snider, co-signed the October cease-and-desist letter sent to the Park City School District demanding it stop the implementation of Welcoming Schools. Snider also spoke against elements of the anti-bullying rule at an August meeting of the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights group, has designated the Pacific Justice Institute an anti-LGBTQ hate group.
Hansen said that his changes had nothing to do with the group.
“I’m not affiliated with the Pacific Justice Institute — in fact, I had to look them up,” Hansen said. “I’m just acting on my own in this.”
The amended rule has bounced between the Law and Licensing Committee and the Board of Education several times. Hansen’s abandoned amendments were the fourth draft of changes since September. The rule was most recently amended in 2018.
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Park City intends to soon seat an internal task force that will study issues within the municipal government itself related to the LGBTQ community.