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By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
WASHINGTON – In the United States there is one allegiance that transcends sexual orientation or the choice to follow any particular religion.
That shared allegiance is “American,” and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires all Americans to treat each other with respect and allow all views to be heard.
Even when we disagree with those views because of our sexual orientation or our choice of religion.
And, yes, even in our public schools.
This is the first conclusion of a first-ever set of guidelines titled, “Public Schools and Sexual Orientation,” authored by the First Amendment Center and endorsed by, among other organizations, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and Christian Educators Association International. The guidelines were released by the First Amendment Center during a press conference March 9.
The nonpartisan guidelines call on school officials to be “fair, honest brokers of a dialogue that involves all stakeholders and seeks the common good.” The recommended strategies include:
Create a “common ground” task force, with representatives with a wide range of community views, to advise school officials on issues such as safety in school, student expression and curricula.
Agree on protecting everyone’s First Amendment rights and reach a shared understanding of current law.
Avoid “us vs. them” political arguments, and permit all sides in the debate to be heard.
Provide educational opportunities for administrators, teachers, parents and students about basic First Amendment principles of rights, responsibilities and respect.
“Americans are deeply divided over homosexuality in our society,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “But if school officials and community members use the ground rules of the First Amendment, they can reach agreement on how public schools can guard the rights of all students in a safe learning environment.”
“So often our national discourse focuses on those issues which divide us. These guidelines highlight, however, that respect is our common American value,” noted GLSEN founder and Executive Director Kevin Jennings.
Local fair-minded citizens welcomed news of the guidelines.
“I guess it’s sort of surprising to see these disparate groups who have come together to talk – to say we need to be able to talk civilly to one another. And that is a good thing,” said Mike Chimento, an openly gay teacher in the Plymouth-Canton school district. “My first thought was ‘It’s too bad they can’t replicate this in Congress.'”
“What I like about these guidelines,” Chimento continued, “is that they’re saying something extremely important – which is listen to each other. It’s really easy to take a position, get entrenched in it and say ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ – for both sides.”
State Representative Glenn Anderson, who earlier this year introduced “Matt’s Safe School Law,” a bill that would require Michigan’s school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies, was also encouraged by the guidelines’ first tip for school officials: “Take seriously complaints of name-calling, harassment and discrimination regardless of the reason.”
“I think anything that would help our school districts address the issue of bullying is valuable and should be considered,” said Anderson. “We know that if children are taught respect for other students that bullying is less likely to happen.” (See “Safe School Law aims to protect all children” online at www.pridesource.com 17393)
Promote safe schools in Michigan
Encourage your state Representative and Senator to support Matt’s Safe School Law. To get contact information for your state Representative and Senator, call the Michigan State House Clerk’s office at 517-373-0135 or visit http://house.michigan.gov/find_a_rep.asp.
To learn more about “Public Schools and Sexual Orientation: A First Amendment framework for finding common ground” visit the First Amendment Center at http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org.