N.O. panel spat highlights LGBT debate

It’s an issue that comes up regularly at the state Legislature in Baton Rouge, pitting religious conservatives against gay rights advocates. But it has rarely entered politics in New Orleans — rarely, at least, until it opened yet another fissure in the local School Board this week.

The question under consideration sounded like an innocuous one, whether or not to “enumerate” certain categories of people in spelling out an anti-bullying policy for the local school district. In other words, should the district’s policy state explicitly that it is forbidden to pick on students because they happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, along with other categories such as race or physical characteristics?

But while the politics of Baton Rouge and New Orleans can sometimes seem worlds apart, the arguments at the board meeting were identical to the ones that fly between prominent conservative groups like the Louisiana Family Forum and LGBT activists when they clash at the Legislature.

Religious conservatives see any explicit mention of gay or lesbian students as just the first step in a gay-rights agenda whose real goal is to teach school children that homosexual behavior is morally acceptable; LGBT advocates see any anti-bullying policy without specific protections for certain students as toothless, worried that teachers and students won’t get the message that singling out students because of gender or sexuality is out-of-bounds.

In a way it’s not surprising that the debate has cropped up at the School Board, which voted to spell out LGBT categories in its policy last year. One of the conservatives with whom LGBT advocates regularly square off against in Baton Rouge — Leslie Ellison — won a seat on the board in the fall, and she has had some success pulling fellow board members in her direction, if not enough yet to strip out the controversial language.

“She has a 10-year history of going up to Baton Rouge to speak against the LGBT community and laws that would protect or benefit that community,” said Kenny Tucker, political director for the Louisiana Forum for Equality. “That’s her prerogative as a private citizen, but now she’s taking those positions to her elected role. It’s not something that’s widely seen in New Orleans.”

For her part, Ellison insisted at this week’s board meeting that she has the best interests of the district’s students in mind. “I love children and I’m going to stand for children and I’m going to protect children,” she said. “All children.”

Though Ellison’s bid was ultimately unsuccessful, it was a debate that highlighted the difficult political reality faced by LGBT groups, with the push to change policy at the state level more or less stalled.

Even in New Orleans — politically speaking a blue speck in a red sea — three of seven School Board members looked ready to pull out the LGBT language and a fourth thought long and hard before coming down against changing it.

And even though the board left its policy alone, it only has a direct say on policy for a small handful of schools. In New Orleans, most public schools operate as independent charters, whether answering to the board or the state’s Recovery School District. They write up their own policies, and for them, the issue of enumerating LGBT categories doesn’t seem to have even come up.

For instance, there’s no specific classes of students listed in the bullying policy at KIPP schools, which will have about 3,800 students enrolled this year compared with about 3,100 at the traditional schools under the board. Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise, KIPP’s executive director, said the city’s charters have been more focused on responding to criticism about the zero-tolerance discipline policies.

“Frankly, I’m not up to speed enough on the argument,” said Caroline Roemer Shirley, who heads the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. She added, “I think it’s a legitimate question,” but also cautioned that putting a new law on the books won’t necessarily solve the problem.

Still, LGBT advocates argue that it’s necessary and does make a difference.

“Research shows that having a bullying policy without these kinds of enumerations, statistically speaking, gives you the same effect as not having any bullying policy at all,” said Thomas Robichaux, who served as the School Board’s president last year before losing a re-election bid in the fall.

Robichaux cited a national survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which found that students at schools with more detailed policies were less likely to hear frequent homophobic remarks in their schools, while there was little difference between schools with generic policies or no policies at all.

But these arguments have made little headway at the state capital, where groups like Forum for Equality has been pushing for a statewide policy that specifically includes gay students for the past few years. And this week’s debate at the School Board offered a vivid display of the anxieties that are fueling the pushback.

Language about incorporating the district’s bullying policy into school curriculum inspired particular concern. Ellison warned, “We’re talking about teaching 4 and 5-year-olds about sexual preference.”

Ellison argued that a policy simply covering all students would be more appropriate and pointed out that the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network is behind much of the national push for enumerations, calling it part of a “gay agenda.”

Cynthia Cade, who voted along with the rest of the board for a more-detailed policy last year, now seems equally worried about what could creep into the curriculum and which groups are behind the push to provide specific protections. The board heard from a series of speakers arguing for the current policy, and Cade noted, “Every speaker that spoke said they were representing some gay or lesbian organization.”

Seth Bloom, the board’s sole gay member, seemed exasperated, trying to dispel what he took to be overblown concerns. He asked those on the other side of the debate to imagine how effective hate crimes laws would be in prosecuting criminals if they didn’t spell out protected groups of individuals.

“I could understand if we were trying to introduce some sort of out-there sex education in school,” Bloom said. “This is something that is really benign.”