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Supporters Push School Board to Amend Nondiscrimination Policy

Sexual Orientation Protection Sougt for Teachers

Robert Rigby Jr. has heard the stories of fellow teachers being discriminated against by administrators for being gay; he has also experienced it firsthand.

As, in his words, "the most 'out' teacher in Fairfax County," he received warnings from administrators at the Alexandria-area middle school where he previously worked when he sent out an e-mail to staff members about organizing a meeting to discuss gay and lesbian issues.

Rigby, now teaching at Hayfield Secondary near Kingstowne, said he was threatened with being fired by his previous administrator and was told a letter of reprimand was being placed in his personnel file. He said a friend of his, also a teacher, is forbidden from going on school field trips because he is gay.

So for the past year, Rigby, co-chair of the local chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, has been the lead spokesman in trying to have sexual orientation added to the Fairfax County Pubic Schools’ published nondiscrimination policy, which already prohibits discrimination on the grounds of such things as age, race, gender or marital status.

"The nondiscrimination policy is one that says Fairfax County Public Schools will not discriminate against its teachers. We're asking to add sexual orientation to the policy," Rigby said. "The federal government has a policy. Fortune 500 companies have a policy. Fairfax County has a policy. The Fairfax County School Board does not have a nondiscrimination policy to protect its teachers."

THE REQUEST for the policy change comes on the heels of the School Board's decision last May to amend a clause in the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook to protect gay and lesbian students from harassment.

"Last year we dealt with adding sexual orientation to the anti-harassment policy because we felt it was important to have highlighted that gays and lesbians were targeted in the schools. We feel amending the nondiscrimination policy is the second part of that policy," said Maryanne Warrick, the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays representative to the Fairfax County Safe Schools Coalition. "It's still a touchy subject. This is a conservative area, and there are still people who don't think there are gays. What is happening in the schools is pretty hard for the students and teachers."

Warrick, who lives in the Sully District, is the sister of a gay man not associated with the school system.

Recently, Rigby provided the School Board with a list of large school districts, including in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, that do and do not include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies.

Locally, the school districts of Alexandria City, Arlington, Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties and Washington, D.C., have nondiscrimination policies in place. The school districts of Prince William, Loudoun and Fairfax counties do not.

In fact, Fairfax County and Virginia Beach are the only Virginia jurisdictions, said Rigby, where government employees are protected by a nondiscrimination policy on the basis of sexual orientation, while there is not a policy in place for the corresponding school-district employees.

"I'VE HEARD COMPLAINTS about there being an atmosphere, not of fear, but of concern from teachers that are gay or rumors of being gay about the security of their jobs," said School Board member Robert Frye Sr. (At large), who is also chairman of the Human Resources Committee. "I think at some point the committee would review a change in the policy. I see it as housekeeping. We added sexual orientation to the student handbook. With the Board having taken that step, I don't see this as a major step."

Rigby is scheduled to meet with some School Board members before their regularly scheduled meeting this Thursday. Board chairman Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill) said that he is waiting until he has all the facts before deciding whether the policy needs to be amended.

"When we amended the code of conduct last year, we heard from a lot of students that were being harassed," he said. Gibson did not want to speculate as to whether that would be the same for teachers.

Rigby said the policy change would also make it easier for teachers to enforce the anti-harassment policy.

"Teachers are fearful of enforcing the policy. There is fear in speaking up," Rigby said. "There is a persuasive feeling among gay teachers to be quiet and don't rock the boat."

He said there are even straight teachers who won't enforce the anti-harassment policy for fear that they will be perceived as gay or sympathetic to gays and singled out by their administrators.

"There really are a lot of people in the coalition that believe in this," Warrick said. "Having [a policy] is a major step in protecting everyone."