The debate surrounding Welcoming Schools in Park City has reemerged after a State Board of Education committee recommended a new draft of the state rule regarding anti-bullying campaigns in Utah public schools that initially ignited debate. The new draft includes language that safeguards protected classes of people who may be bullied based on race, gender identity or sexual orientation. A previous draft of the rule eschewed specific mentions of and protections for federally protected classes of people.

For those unfamiliar with the Welcoming Schools program, it is a professional development curriculum for teachers at Trailside Elementary School implemented to meet a state requirement to include an anti-bullying campaign. Welcoming Schools focuses specifically on combatting bullying to build schools that are safe and inclusive for LGBTQ students and all people of gender identities. An anonymous group of parents and an attorney representing them from the anti-LGBTQ hate group Pacific Justice Institute, inaccurately and deceptively called the program an “LGBTQ indoctrination program and sex education program” as part of a cease-and-desist letter sent to try to derail the program. The action, which was dubiously presented as free-speech advocacy, led to furor and heated discourse throughout the community.

The revised rule is aimed to increase clarity within its language that will properly help schools gather data on bullying and discrimination. Most were happy to see requirements for the inclusion of anti-bullying protections for people protected by Title IX and the Civil Rights Act as a part of required training. Still, some balked at the potential infringement of free speech rights, including Utah Board of Education member Jennie Earl. Earl put forward an amendment addressing “the rights of a school employee, parent, or student to exercise the right of free speech.” The amendment was modified and ultimately accepted by the committee.

Some in attendance asserted the amendment serves to protect bullies rather bullied students, which I believe is a fair representation of its intent. It should be noted as always, that the First Amendment protects people from persecution and arrest by the government. It does not shield one from community criticism or backlash, nor does it inoculate those who say bigoted things in schools from consequence.

The School Board may approve the new rule in March and implement it as early as May following a public comment period. There is no good-faith or intellectually honest argument against building safer and more inclusive schools to be made. If these issues are important to you, stay up to date with the Utah Board of Education and submit your comments when appropriate.

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