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School's No-Bias Wording Gets OK

State's acceptance of Westminster board's antidiscrimination rule defuses funding crisis.

April 20, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

California's schools chief on Monday reluctantly accepted Westminster School District's novel approach to an antidiscrimination law -- a decision that grants a dramatic victory to three beleaguered trustees and removes, for now, the threat of lost funding.

The three, who form a majority on the Westminster board, have cited their Christian beliefs in insisting that the district not adopt word-for-word a state policy that allows students and staff members to define their own gender.

Westminster is the only one of California's 1,056 school districts that has refused to adopt the language, and faced the loss of $8 million in annual state and federal funding. The stance, which angered many parents and teachers, led to a recall campaign and proposed legislation that would allow the state to take over the district.

California Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell announced Monday that the modified policy the board adopted last week technically complies with state law that protects gays, as well as transsexuals and others who do not conform to traditional gender roles.

But in a stern letter to the district's five trustees, O'Connell said he did not trust that the board's majority intended to adhere to the law and promised to scrutinize the district for possible violations.

"I want to again express my disappointment that those who took an oath to educate children would abuse their elected positions and attempt to flout the law," O'Connell wrote. "This sets a destructive example for our children and is contrary to the democratic values of our society. Our children deserve better."

But trustee Judy Ahrens, who led the board's resistance to the state law, said students were the winners.

"This is a victory for the kids. Anything else would have been dangerous for them," Ahrens said. "I've been through so much, so much. Finally, something right has been done in Sacramento."

For months, she and fellow trustees Helena Rutkowski and Blossie Marquez-Woodcock rejected the wording of the state law that allows students and teachers to define their own gender when making a discrimination complaint. The three said the law was immoral and would allow transsexuals to promote alternative lifestyles in the classroom.

Last week, as a state deadline expired, the divided board voted to revise the district's policy for handling discrimination complaints as O'Connell's office had demanded. But in rewriting the policy, they rejected the idea that someone can define their own gender when making a complaint.

Instead, the trustees approved a policy that defines a person's gender as their biological sex or, in the case of discrimination, what it was perceived to be by an alleged discriminator.

The three trustees' stance has pitted them against other board members, teachers and parents who have accused them of jeopardizing district funding, while following personal beliefs instead of state law.

Louise MacIntyre, president for the district PTA, said O'Connell's decision would not alter plans to recall Ahrens and Marquez-Woodcock. Rutkowski, whose term expires in November, is not targeted.

"I'm relieved that there will not be any financial impact, but these women have gotten by on a technicality," she said. "For the past two months they have held our 10,000 kids hostage. Their agenda is obviously not in the best interest of the children."

Similarly, state Sen. Joseph Dunn (D-Santa Ana) said he would continue to pursue a bill that would allow the state to take control of any school district that failed to comply with state law.

"In no way am I going to terminate my plans for legislation," Dunn said. "If there is ever a future claim of discrimination, this board will never act in compliance with the law."

In an interview Monday, O'Connell also was skeptical that the Westminster board majority would follow the law: "They are on my permanent watch list. I have many friends in the district and will keep an ear close to the ground.

"They are complying with the law; however, their prior rhetoric and action is unacceptable. I will never condone any discrimination against anyone."

In his letter, O'Connell also ordered the district to inform its parents, employees and students of the changes to the gender policy. Trish Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the district, said administrators were discussing how best to notify the community.

Mark Bucher, the lawyer hastily hired by the board this month to represent the district, dismissed O'Connell's promise to keep close watch on Westminster. Bucher said Monday's decision not only vindicates the three trustees, but calls into question the state's gender definitions.

"Mr. O'Connell's decision proves that the three trustees were right from the beginning," Bucher said. "He can dance around it all he wants ... but our definition follows the letter of the law. He is inviting someone to challenge the state law, and I think someone will."

But education officials and antidiscrimination activists contend the law is solid.

The only question, they said, is whether Westminster will follow it.

"The bottom line is that the test will come when we see how the district handles a real-life case," said Jennifer Pizer, senior attorney for Lambda Legal, a national nonprofit legal advocacy group for gays, lesbians and transsexuals.

"What we've seen is a quibble about technical drafting ... but their intention is clear. They plan to deny protection from discrimination to a class of students."

Ahrens said the district would follow the law -- though she declined to say how the district would respond to a complaint by a transsexual or anyone else who believed they were discriminated against because they do not fulfill traditional gender roles.

"We're going to treat everyone decently," Ahrens said. "People are allowed to do whatever they want on their own time, but on the job, if you fall out of line, then that's a problem."

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