The Diversity Dilemma


What to Do About the New School Safety Legislation

by Wayne Jacobsen, President of BridgeBuilders

in association with The Common Ground Project

What’s a school district to do?

The California Department of Education has just issued recommendations for implementing the new safe schools legislation regarding sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. Excluded from the process, conservative groups have countered with a sweeping Student Exemption Form that could undermine attempts to implement the new legislation even if only a small percentage of students return them.

Once again local school districts are caught between cultural forces that threaten to polarize the community and undermine the public trust in education at a time when we most need to find ways to work together. Certainly the effort to find the common ground on diversity issues that encompass human sexuality are complicated, but when it comes to school safety it can and must be done.

Recognizing that those students and staff who are identified as gay, lesbian or transgendered are often targets for harassment or violence, the new school safety legislation, AB537 specifically added actual or perceived sexual orientation and actual or perceived gender identity to the existing prohibitions against discrimination and harassment in California public schools. In attempting to provide as safe an environment for them as for anyone else, this legislation could have been a springboard to help us build mutual respect across our deepest differences.

It seems, however, that the recommendations for implementing this legislation recently released by the California Department of Education missed that opportunity. By not including social conservatives at the table they were unable to seek out broad-based solutions that would fulfill the intent of the original bills. Instead of offering recommendations to build a safe environment by recognizing the diverse views of human sexuality in our culture, they instead ask educators to serve up only one point of view.

The final product goes beyond school safety needs and may be so one-sided that it could undercut its own goals. The committee’s recommendations (downloadble pdf file) call for sexual orientation and sexual identity instruction and resources to be included in all public schools. They recommend including information about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered historical figures, events, concepts and issues in future curriculum review and adding similar resources to school libraries. Further, visual images inclusive of all sexual orientations would be posted in common areas of the school throughout the year.

Predictably conservative groups have denounced the committee’s report concerned that any staff or student who hold beliefs about sexual orientation or gender identity different than those represented on the task force would be identified and reported on the annual school hate crime report, or be targeted for ‘rehabilitation’. In response these groups are circulating a new Student Exemption Form, which will allow parents to exempt their students from any exposure to any diversity training dealing with sexual themes.

Prepared by representatives of the Campaign for California Families, the United States Justice Foundation, the Pacific Justice Institute, the Pro-Family Law Center and the Life Legal Defense Foundation, it gives parents the tool to notify school officials not to “teach, instruct, advise, counsel, discuss, test, question, examine, survey or in any other way provide information, data or images” to their child concerning (among other things) sex education, human sexuality, pupil’s personal beliefs or practices in sex, family life, morality and religion, sexually transmitted diseases, gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual preference, homosexuality, transgender or transsexual issues or any alternatives to monogamous heterosexual marriage. The exemption includes classroom instruction, presentations, reading assignments, printed material, movies, videos, field trips assemblies, and assigned activities.

While these exemptions will be difficult and time-consuming to implement, parents who view the sweeping state recommendations as an attempt to indoctrinate their children with a worldview at odds with their convictions may feel they have little choice. It is easy to see that even if a small number of these forms are filed in a school district, it will severely restrict how any approach to diversity can be integrated throughout the curriculum or campus environment.

As a mediator in worldview conflicts, I hoped the state would have used this new school safety legislation to model a process that could include all voices at the table and find creative ways to guard each other’s safety especially where we disagree on the issues. While their intent may have been to increase school safety, the way they sought to achieve it may have provided the impetus to further polarize our communities and add to the growing climate of distrust regarding the objectives of public education.

But that doesn’t have to be the outcome in your district. In fact, your district can turn this situation into a marvelous opportunity to help your community understand how to disarm the tensions brought on by our cultural differences and at the same time build a safer environment for every student and staff member.

Thus, BridgeBuilders has issued the following recommendations to California educators:


  • First, file the AB 537 task force report and revert to the language of the actual bill itself. The recommendations are not legally binding and you will find ample language in the original bill to deal with sexual orientation and gender identity that can protect students and staff while being fair to the differences in your community about how homosexuality and transgender issues are regarded. Don’t wait for parents to reach for their exemption forms. Be proactive about informing them how your district will address these cultural differences and open the door to answer their questions and concerns.
  • Second, do what the state committee did not do. If you don’t already have one, convene a Common Ground Task Force to deal with conflicts between worldviews in your district. Include representatives from all the stakeholders–gay and lesbian advocates as well as social conservatives and everyone in between. Through a common ground approach* your district can wrestle with the need to provide a safe environment for all students by building mutual respect for our differences. We have seen school districts utilize this approach to implement safety policies with near unanimous support from all segments of the community.
  • Third, resist either side’s attempts to enlist you as an advocate for their political point of view. We are divided as a culture on the morality of homosexuality. We cannot change that through legislation or school policy. Some cite science and sociological studies to assert homosexuality is a normal alternative to heterosexuality. Other groups, many of them claiming deep-seated beliefs, do not embrace that conclusion. While these groups have the freedom to advocate for their point of view in the wider culture, neither of them have the right to ask school district officials to do it for them, nor advocate violence or harassment against those who disagree with them. At times like this public schools are well-advised to teach to the controversy while fostering an environment for civil debate free of harassment and violence.
  • Fourth, Train your district officials and teachers in the civic virtues that allow you to deal with your deep-seated differences through mutual respect. Legislation and is limited in changing the way people perceive those who are different from them. Just because something is offensive, however, does not mean it is illegal. Already courts have reversed a school policy against a student wearing a ‘Straight Pride’ T-shirt and other attempts to curtail freedom of speech even in these divisive areas have been overturned by courts. Legislation and litigation will ultimately fail if we don’t cultivate an environment of mutual respect.
  • Fifth, keep an eye out for new tools that can foster a common ground environment in your district and use them to do just that. The California Department of Education is preparing two new publications that may be very helpful in this debate. “Putting it All Together: Program Guidelines for State-Mandated HIV/STD Prevention Programs in California Middle and High Schools” will specifically encourage districts to have training in common ground thinking when dealing with difficult issues of sexuality in which our society has deep disagreements.Also the Department of Education is considering a new edition of “Moral, Civic and Ethical Education; Teaching About Religion, Promoting Responsible Attitudes and Behaviors, and Preventing and Responding to Hate Violence”. While this guide has traditionally been an excellent tool to foster mutual respect beyond our religious and moral differences, it remains to be seen whether the section on hate violence will foster a common ground approach or reflect the one-sided recommendations of of the AB537 task force. Let’s hope it does the former.

It is tragic that legislation designed to help us appreciate our differences, has been used instead to prefer one point of view to the exclusion of others. While it may seem fair to those who have long felt oppressed by a majority view they felt put them at risk, it will not change the way people think about the issues.

We cannot win this debate by demanding that society view these issues the same way we do. We can however, win the peace by fostering a commitment to a safe and harassment-free environment for all staff and students, especially those with whom we disagree. Mutual respect and passion for each other’s safety does not demand that we agree on the issues, only that we agree on the civic principles that allow us to treat our differences fairly. School safety in these tense times beckon staff and students alike to embrace these principles.

It can be done successfully. Many school districts have already done so and are feasting on the benefits of a civil public school instead of a divided one.

*Common ground approaches are based on the civic principles of the First Amendment to the U.S Constitution and provide a proven framework for people to find mutual respect beyond their deepest differences. For more information see “Why Common Ground Thinking Works” in the December 1999 issue of Educational Leadership. If you want help implementing this approach to school safety concerns, contact Wayne Jacobsen at BridgeBuidlers (805.988.4409).

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This paper is the product of BridgeBuilders and is not a legal opinion.

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