Building Harassment-Free Schools Without Adding to the Controversy

Below is an article I wrote for the NSBA regarding a recent negotiation I did with a district in Iowa. It is an excellent case study on how the guidelines I wrote about in my last Watch can be implemented at a local level to help resolve conflicts over sexual orientation issues.

To List or Not to List: The Marshalltown Solution

By Wayne Jacobsen, President, Bridgebuilders

“We’re done tonight when 90% of us agree on a policy to recommend to the school district.”

That’s always my opening line in these kinds of negotiations. I usually get a polite laugh for the humor and then it sinks in: He’s serious.

This time I was with twenty-two people gathered in the late May heat of a central Iowa school board room. For weeks a new anti-harassment policy was making its way through the school board approval process and the town was deeply polarized by it. For the first time ‘sexual orientation’ would to be included in the list of attributes for which harassment would not be tolerated. As you might imagine, not every was thrilled with the new policy.

Over weeks of heated debate the controversy seemed to settle on one issue. Would listing specific groups in the policy do more harm than good? While no one disagreed with the district’s need for a clear policy to provide a harassment free environment for all staff and students, some hoped that statement alone would be sufficient. They wanted all to mean all and avoid the need to enumerate targeted groups. Certainly some of those who wanted to avoid the listing were uncomfortable spelling out ‘sexual orientation’ in the policy. They were concerned that it would mandate staff to promote gay pride activities, which would be an affront to their own beliefs. But many genuinely felt that such lists only intensify the divisions in the culture rather than heal them.

But those who were proposing the new policy were concerned that without listing specific targeted forms of harassment, the policy would easily be ignored. They had been specifically frustrated by past attempts to get school staff to take seriously the amount of teasing, name-calling and bullying in the district based on real or perceived sexual orientation.

To list or not to list, was the question now polarizing their community, and it is the focus of a debate going on in districts all across the country.

False Dichotomies

When I was first contacted about helping the district, I was asked whether I recommended listing or not listing targeted forms of harassment in such policies. Neither, I answered. To view this controversy in such narrow terms limits the possible solutions that could help this community get through this controversy.

That’s why I don’t like being pushed into the false dichotomy of listing targeted groups or not listing in anti-harassment policies. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. In truth such battles often serve the mask the real issue—can we build enough mutual respect to work through these difficult issues without one side feeling their rights are being co-opted by the other?

In the many communities I’ve worked with on similar issues, the final language is never identical. I prefer to use the process of a conflicted group of people working together to craft a policy that is fair to them, than impose solutions from without. The process is actually more important than the product.

While the school board could have resolved the issue themselves with a 4-3 vote, they took my recommendation to appoint an advisory committee representative of all the voices in this debate to have a conversation about their differences and recommend a policy to the board. After all, what is the value of passing an anti-harassment policy by a narrow-margin majority if it only serves to increase the polarization in the community over the very issue they are hoping to address? Such policies are often overturned by subsequent elections when those who feel disenfranchised work harder to elect single-issue candidates who can change the policy back.

Defining the Common Ground

I had been asked to facilitate the committee and spent two evenings with them to hammer out a shared agreement that would not divide their community. In my first couple of hours I knew they had appointed the right people. The room represented a broad spectrum of passionate views and their disagreements were evident. They were polarized, seeking to convince each other that their view of listing or not listing was the only reasonable alternative.

At this point they had no idea where to find their common ground. They had framed the debate in either/or propositions where the only possible result was for half the room to win and half to lose. But the art of helping people find common ground begins by reframing the argument so that each person doesn’t just see what he or she might think is best for his or her child, but to think honestly about what is fair for all children in the district.

After we aired the issue and the positions of those in the room, I gave them a brief training on the First Amendment and how it can help us cultivate the common ground on issues regarding our political and religious differences. Public schools are a treasure worth sharing, even with people who disagree with us. If we’re going to share the forum, then we cannot ask public education to choose sides on issues where claims of conscience are at stake, but to be a fair and honest broker of a common good where all constituencies are treated fairly. You cannot ask people to participate in a public school system that is biased against themselves. Forcing people to do so only exacerbates the animosity and resentment that already divides our culture.

In defining a common good that transcended their differences, people begin to discover that they best protect their own First Amendment rights by protecting those same rights for others with whom they disagree. Under our First Amendment, a school is both safe and free when all members of the school and community commit to addressing their differences with civility and respect. A safe school is free of bullying and harassment and a free school is safe for student speech about issues that divide us.

Working for a Greater Common Good

The task of that committee was not to build a coalition of the like-minded at someone else’s expense, but to be fair to the differences in the room. And they rose to the challenge. Once they saw that people with whom they had disagreement wanted to make room for them in this policy, we were headed downhill.

We worked through their proposed policy paragraph by paragraph, noting where there were disagreements and working for language that had broad consensus in the room. By adding language that recognized their differences, affirmed their First Amendment rights, and reflected their newfound mutual respect, they crafted an anti-harassment policy even stronger than the one that had divided them.

So, did they list or not list? Actually, both! In the end, Marshalltown removed the enumerated list from the paragraph that defined harassment, emphasizing there the word ‘all’. But they included the list of federally protected groups and groups they felt were specifically targeted in their district for which staff and students would receive future training. And yes, ‘sexual orientation’ was listed there. More importantly, the entire committee affirmed that harassment based on sexual orientation was a problem the district could no longer ignore.

The important question is never whether we should list or not list, but why we do it, how we do it, where we do it so that it will promote a community more committed to the common good or one exacerbates the conflict.

In negotiations like this I always shoot for a 90% vote to let them know they have truly found the common ground. In truth, I am willing to accept anything above 80. In the end this committee recommended its new anti-harassment policy to the school board by a vote of 22-0. Every person in that room was convinced that the policy they ended up with was a better policy than the one originally proposed.

But more importantly, they left the room with a better way to handle their differences and an abiding mutual respect that will serve them well in days to come. In doing so Marshalltown made their public, school a bit more public and a whole lot safer for all.

Contact: Wayne Jacobsen, President; BridgeBuilders;; 7228 University Dr.; Moorpark, CA 93021; (805) 529-1728;

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