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Proposed changes to the school division’s policies on harassment and retaliation led to a heated debate at the Williamsburg-James City County School Board’s meeting Tuesday night.
At issue was a first reading of proposed alterations to the school division’s policies on harassment and retaliation for both students and employees. Among other changes, the proposed policy changes would add gender, ancestry, marital status and genetic information as classes protected under the policy.
The existing policy already prohibits harassment based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age and disability, and those would remain protected under the proposed update.
The update also prohibits harassment based on “a belief” that an individual has a characteristic of one of the protected classes.
The discussion largely consisted of a dialogue between Vice Chairwoman Heather Cordasco (Roberts) and WJCC attorney Patrick Lacy.
Cordasco said she thought the proposed policy was “reaching” in its scope, and did not align with protected classes identified in Virginia’s anti-bullying statute. She also criticized the proposed policy’s lack of an exemption for speech protected under the First Amendment, which she specified as speech dealing with religion, philosophical or political views.
“I think there’s a lot of cruelty in school that’s difficult to define,” she said.
She also said the School Board should not try to “get inside the mind of the harasser” and judge intent, but should “deal with the behavior” of the harasser.
Lacy said it was possible the policy did not align with language in state statutes, but was in accord with federal law and precedent. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has held sexual identity and gender identity are federally protected classes under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Cordasco said she had “done a lot of research,” and did not believe the proposed policy would stand up to legal scrutiny.
“I’m concerned that we are delving into new ground, new areas that have not been quantified by law,” Cordasco said.
Lacy said he believed the proposed policy had firm grounding in legal precedent.
“I think you could find a basis in federal law for all of these things except ancestry,” he said.
Board member Joe Fuentes (Powhatan) said Lacy’s opinion was a legal one — not motivated by personal beliefs — and was meant to advise the School Board, not direct it.
“Just because he reviewed it and said it’s legal doesn’t mean we can’t change it,” Fuentes said.
While Cordasco’s criticisms dominated the discussion, several other board members critiqued the proposed policy changes for being too vague, poorly written or too confusing.
Fuentes (Powhatan) and board Secretary Jim Nickols (Stonehouse) made several grammatical corrections, while Ruth Larson asked Lacy and his staff to compare the proposed changes to other divisions around the state, including Virginia Beach City Public Schools.
Several James City County residents also spoke out on the proposed changes.
Petra Nadal echoed Cordasco’s comments, saying she feared the proposed policy would negatively affect the First Amendment rights of students. Nadal is running to replace Cordasco as the Roberts District representative on the board; Cordasco is running against Supervisor John McGlennon for the Roberts District seat on the James City County Board of Supervisors.
Veronica Williams, a local attorney, also criticized the scope of the proposed policy.
“[It is] very similar to codes that have been struck down,” she said. “The court has set forth a standard that every school board and school division should emulate when promulgating policies.”
James City County resident Tom Estock also criticized the policy, but argued it did not go far enough to protect students. Estock said the policy was a welcome change, but failed to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. He pointed to Fairfax County Public Schools and the College of William & Mary as comparable educational institutions that have specific protections for those two classes.
Lacy said the policy clearly protected gender, but added the law was unclear regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.
“There is a heated debate over whether gender identity is sex discrimination or not,” Lacy said. “The federal government says it is, but there is not definitive court decision out there. … I suggest you stay out of it.”
Proposed policy changes require two readings prior to approval. Tuesday night was the first reading of the proposed changes to WJCC’s harassment policy.
School division staff will review the policy and board member’s suggestions before presenting the School Board with a revised proposal at a later board meeting.