Fort Worth school district expands anti-bullying policy to protect 'gender identity and expression'

FORT WORTH -- The Fort Worth school district has expanded its anti-bullying policy to protect students who express themselves -- including their sexuality -- in nontraditional ways, a move that gay-rights advocates say is positive and progressive.

The amended anti-harassment policy now includes "gender identity and expression" protection for students and was approved without discussion by trustees Tuesday. The school district is believed to be the first in the state to adopt such a policy.

A similar policy was adopted for employees in January.

Supporters say the change is progressive in that it prohibits bullying based on how students express their sexuality -- such as a boy who wears nail polish.

The policy change came on the second anniversary of the controversial bar check at the Rainbow Lounge, a gay club in Fort Worth, in which patrons said law enforcement officers used excessive force.

Some say the school district's expanded anti-bullying policies are the result of heightened awareness in Fort Worth to address concerns in the gay community in the wake of the incident.

"The Rainbow Lounge incident was an unfortunate incident, but it gave us the opportunity to change things for the better in Fort Worth," said Trustee Carlos Vasquez, who is gay. He noted, however, that the new policy's adoption on the anniversary of the raid was a coincidence.

Not everyone supports such policies, saying they tear down traditional family values. Pat Carlson, president of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum and a Fort Worth resident, said the goal seems to be to confuse children on sexuality and gender roles.

"I have to wonder, Where does this stop?" Carlson said. "What about those students that are Christian students ... and there is a boy that comes dressed as a girl? Wouldn't that create an offensive environment for those Christian students? Where is their protection?"

Bertha Whatley, the school district's attorney, said the policy change is intended to protect all children.

"We want all students to know that Fort Worth ISD is a learning community that values them," Whatley said.

Barbara Williams, a spokeswoman with the Texas Association of School Boards, said a quick search found several school districts that prohibit bullying or discrimination based on sexual orientation, but none that address gender identity.

Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for the national Human Rights Campaign, said she was also unaware of any Texas district having such an expanded policy.

"It is honorable that Fort Worth chose to set an example of what they can do to protect students, and I hope that other cities across the state and country will see it as a model to emulate the hard work Fort Worth has put into it," Warbelow said.

The policy change comes months after Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns gained national attention for an anti-bullying speech he delivered in council chambers, and after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said schools that fail to address the bullying of gay students could lose federal dollars

With all the focus being put on gay issues and bullying -- at the local, state and national levels -- it has created an environment for change, said Thomas Anable, president of Fairness Fort Worth, a group that formed after the Rainbow Lounge incident to address equality issues.

In March, for example, Tarrant County College approved changes to its anti-discrimination employment policy that include sexual orientation, he noted.

But Anable said the Fort Worth school district's policy change is one of the most progressive to protect any gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students. "If students are being bullied, no one can learn," he said.

Staff writer Diane Smith contributed to this report, which includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700