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District, Gay Teacher Settle; Policy Revised

California and the West

Schools: Bakersfield officials had transferred students out of man's classes after parents complained. They agree not to consider sexual orientation.

March 19, 1999|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Bakersfield school district that last year removed students from a gay teacher's classroom at parents' requests agreed Thursday not to consider an instructor's race, religion or sexual orientation in future student placements.

In a settlement, the Rio Bravo-Greeley Union School District agreed to allow eighth-grade science teacher James Merrick to return to work--but not as a teacher. Merrick, who has been on paid leave since January, will plan a science curriculum for a new elementary school and will retire at the end of the year.

Merrick, who had filed a complaint with the state Labor Commission, said in a prepared statement that he was pleased with the deal. "There is no room for bigotry in our public institutions," he said. "This agreement is a model for forging a community where all schools nurture tolerance and diversity."

A state labor commissioner ruled last week that district officials had discriminated against the 61-year-old teacher by acting on parental requests to transfer 15 students from his classroom because he was openly gay.

Under the agreement, the school district will apologize to Merrick. Officials also agreed to consult with a committee that includes Merrick to improve staff understanding of the newly enacted policy.

School trustees released a statement saying they never doubted Merrick's ability as a teacher, but still do not agree with the recent decision by the state labor commissioner.

"But we have decided that the agreement we have reached is in the best interests of the students, parents and staff of this district," the unsigned statement said. "It preserves the right of parents to have input into the class placement of their children."

But Mary Ann Ronk, who removed her foster son from Merrick's class, isn't so sure.

"I'm pleased this man is no longer in the classroom, but I am angered that he could convince the district to rewrite its policy regarding gay teachers," she said. "The [former] policy allowed parents to decide who can educate their children and who they don't want them to be around."

She said she plans to contact other parents in the school district and would investigate filing suit on their behalf. "If this is going to affect me making the decision about my kids, then that's a serious problem."

As part of Thursday's deal, Merrick agreed not to sue the school district, and school board officials said they would not appeal the state labor commissioner's ruling.

Merrick's lawyers said there were definite trade-offs for the award-winning teacher in reaching the settlement. "You could definitely argue that, while the agreement helps everyone in the future, it doesn't do much to help Jim because he's no longer teaching," said Myron Quon, an attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who represented Merrick.

Merrick said he chose not to return to his classroom because he felt he might disrupt students after his two-month absence. "There's only two months until the end of school," he said.

Merrick, a 40-year teaching veteran, was hired by the district in 1994 and once was named "Teacher of the Year" by the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce.

During the fall semester 15 students--10 boys and five girls--were removed from his classes after parents began complaining about his mannerisms in class and he was quoted in local newspapers speaking out on gay issues.

The father of four grown children, he lives with his partner in Bakersfield but remains close to his wife of 45 years.

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