Since 2018, the Utah State Board of Education has been under pressure to address certain protective language in their bullying rules. The proposed changes caused some Park City residents concern that LGBTQ kids would be unprotected from bullying if the language changed.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people in Utah. Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams says they know reducing bullying improves student’s mental health and sense of well-being. He says gay kids, or kids perceived to be gay, are disproportionately targeted.
“And we looked at data across the country and states that had adopted comprehensive anti- bullying laws that actually enumerate the protections, actually spell out who is being protected, have seen a reduction, a dramatic reduction in bullying because teachers and administrators know that you cannot be targeted based on these characteristics."
Utah State School Board Member Scott Hansen submitted proposed changes to the Law and Licensing Committee in 2019 which redlined some specific protections. A public outcry resulted in the school board rejecting the proposal.
In 2016, Equality Utah filed a lawsuit against the Utah State Board of Education because there was a prohibition on the advocacy of homosexuality in the classroom. Students and teachers could not legally talk about LGBTQ related topics in schools. They worked with an advisory committee to help the board draft language to ensure all students have an education free from all forms of discrimination. “The Utah State Legislature jumped in and said there's merit to your lawsuit and we're going to fix this. 2017, almost unanimously, the Utah legislature overturned the no promo homo law and that was a huge success and we helped draft really robust anti bullying protections that were adopted by the state board.”
Williams says some state legislators were concerned about the broadness of the bullying rule and that it infringed on First Amendment rights. Sen. Jake Andregegg, republican from Lehi, invited counsel from the Pacific Justice Institute to weigh in on the issue when it was before the school board in August.
“You know, they’re not an organization that has a lot of impact or influence in Utah. I've not seen them being a major player here. When Scott Hanson and the school board saw the backlash, they respond to respond appropriately, and they re-introduced a new proposal that re-stored many of the critical elements that were important to so many communities.”Williams says they are satisfied with the new rule as it includes three main tenets.
“Our concerns were that we want to make sure that the enumerated categories are there and present because you can't protect folks if you can't name them. And we also want to make sure that there is proper training for teachers and that there was LGBTQ inclusive training for teachers. We also wanted to make sure that there was a proper avenue for reporting.”
Williams says the state board of education has allowed districts to adopt curriculum that is best suited for their community.
“Attitudes are shifting, and people do recognize that gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual students exist, and they are a beautiful part of our social fabric and need to be nurtured and loved. We need to create a sense of belonging.”
That’s Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams. He supports the rule changes which were approved by the Utah State Board of Education Laws and Licensing committee. The item is 277-613, Draft 5 and it goes to the state board of education in March for consideration.