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Adding sexual orientation, gender identity protections stirs CdA schools debate

A citizen proposal to add protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students and employees in Coeur d’Alene public schools has sparked controversy even before the school board has said if it will take on the debate.

Coeur d’Alene attorney Susan Moss, a parent in the district, asked the board Monday to look at nine policies that list the basis on which discrimination and harassment are prohibited – race, sex and religion, for example – and consider adding sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.

Moss said the district lacks uniform language in its policies. One policy on bullying does address sexual orientation, she noted, but teachers still can be fired for being gay.

The City Council added such language to Coeur d’Alene’s anti-discrimination ordinance last summer. The Coeur d’Alene School District, as a division of state government, appears to be exempt from compliance with that law, Moss said.

“I would urge you, regardless, to extend the same protections for the district’s employees,” she said.

School districts in Pocatello and Idaho Falls already have done so, Moss said. “You would be in good company, and I can assure you that more and more school districts will be doing it around the state.”

The district will review if it’s legally required to add such language, board Chairman Tom Hearn said during the standing-room-only meeting. Then, if the school trustees decide to pursue a policy change, residents will be able to tell the board what they think of the proposal, Hearn said.

“No decision will be made by this board until after all the public comment has been received,” he said.

But opponents of the proposal confronted the board Monday with allegations of dishonesty and a lack of transparency.

They said emails of Hearn’s obtained through a public records request show that he, trustee Christa Hazel and Superintendent Matt Handelman discussed the idea of making the policy changes last year, even though Hearn indicated at the last two meetings the board was not discussing it.

One email from last November touched on the potential for a political battle over extending the protections to parts of the school district that fall outside Coeur d’Alene city limits, such as Dalton Gardens.

“It is my belief that both the LGBT representative and those from the school board know that this is a political issue and not an issue of what is best for the students in our district,” Tim Scott complained.

John Padula also dressed down the board. “You’re stripping the moral values of our kids by leading in dishonesty and deception,” he said.

Hearn and Hazel disputed that they misled anyone. Until Monday, there was no formal request to change the policies, and that is what Hearn said he told those who asked about it.

“I was honest when I said in both those previous board meetings there had been no formal request to the Coeur d’Alene School District,” he said.

Trustee Dave Eubanks made an appeal for patience and civility.

“I would ask that we take it one step at a time, slow down a bit, try not to demonize anybody just yet,” Eubanks said. “Just be patient and we’ll do the best job we can for everybody.”

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