By KRISTIN M. HALL
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A lawsuit filed in Nashville challenging a new state law says the legislation voids school board policies that protect gay and lesbian students from bullying and harassment, but the law’s sponsor disagrees.
The law prohibits local governments from creating anti-discrimination regulations that are stricter than the state’s and repealed a Nashville city ordinance barring companies that discriminate against gays and lesbians from doing business with the city. Nashville’s ordinance was broader than the state’s anti-discrimination laws, which only cover race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin.
Attorney Abby Rubenfeld, who represents three Nashville councilmember and other residents of the city in the lawsuit, filed the lawsuit last Monday after the bill was signed into law in May. She said the text of the statute is written broadly enough that it could render invalid anti-bullying and harassment policies enacted by school boards that include sexual orientation or gender identity.
“It doesn’t just include ordinances, but any policy or any official actions by local governments,” Rubenfeld said Friday. “And school boards are part of local government.”
But the sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican from Franklin, said the bill is being misread and only affects businesses that contract with local governments. The law does not apply to employees who work for cities or counties.
“The intent is to keep local governments from putting any more regulation on our local businesses beyond federal law,” he said.
School districts in Tennessee that have bullying or harassment policies that include sexual orientation are working to determine what, if any, effect the legislation has on their policies.
Metro Nashville Public Schools has a broad definition of bullying and harassment, which includes gender identity/expression and sexual orientation. Tom Cross, an attorney with the Metro Nashville legal department, said that the city had begun changing the language in their contracts to reflect the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance that passed in April before the state law repealed it.
“The net effect of the state legislation hasn’t yet been determined,” Cross said.
Cross said his department would not speculate or offer an opinion on the law, but he said the school board’s handling of bullying and harassment cases wasn’t changing.
“The school board is not going to entertain a policy that sanctions bullying of any kind,” he said.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Shirit Pankowsky, a senior at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Nashville, and Wesley Roberts, a teacher at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School in Nashville. Both work with the Gay/Straight Alliance, an organization that promotes tolerance and understanding for gay, lesbian and transgender students.
Since Nashville schools are currently on summer break, Roberts said he hasn’t received any guidance from his school administrators on the law, but he said he expects there will be discussions about it once school resumes. He said in his experience as a teacher, he’s heard comments of intolerance that could develop into bullying without a clear policy.
“You can’t discriminate based on a person’s orientation,” Roberts said. “Especially for teenagers who are very confused about their orientation, to not have a policy in place seems unconscionable.”
Knox County Board of Education defines harassment, bullying or intimidation as actions motivated by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability. And Memphis City Schools’ Student Code of Conduct policy has identical language defining bullying and harassment.
Melissa Copelan, a spokeswoman for Knox County Schools, said they will be analyzing the legislation to determine its potential effect to the district, which has a total of about 55,000 students.
In the past school year, the system had 179 incidents of bullying reporting involving 163 students, Copelan said.
Quintin Taylor, a spokesman for Memphis City Schools, said the district’s general counsel said the bill does not apply to their discrimination policies.
Rubenfeld said the state has not provided a response to the lawsuit as of Friday. She expects both sides will take some time for evidence discovery before arguments will be heard in the case.