The Other 60 Percent

Districts lag in spelling out protection

Eighteen months after Colorado lawmakers voted to require schools to pass anti-bullying policies that specifically protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students – and four years after passage of a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation – fewer than a third of Colorado’s 178 school districts appear to have adopted policies that specifically reflect both.

A student is slumped alone in the hallway outside his locker in this black-and-white photo.Those are the findings of a survey completed over the summer by One Colorado Education Fund, a statewide organization advocating for equal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“It’s great that the legislature took this first step in enacting a law to protect young people from bullying and harassment,” said Brad Clark, executive director of One Colorado Education Fund. “But it’s disappointing that still more than 60 percent of school districts haven’t done what they need to do to address this.”

The survey obtained results from 148 Colorado school districts. All those not responding were small, remote districts. Of those who did respond:

  • 50 have fully updated all their anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies specifically to include sexual orientation
  • 48 have done nothing to update their policies
  • 50 have updated some, but not all, of their policies or have failed to specifically enumerate the groups of students granted special protection

Nearly all of the districts that have failed to update their policies are small, rural districts.

But One Colorado found that four of the state’s 10 largest districts – Jefferson County, Denver, Aurora and Douglas County – have updated their policies but have failed to include the suggested model language about sexual orientation.

A question of semantics

Denver Public Schools officials say they believe the district’s anti-bullying policy does comply with state law, but they’re in the process of updating all district policies to ensure sexual orientation is always included among protected classes listed.

What Colorado laws say

“Our updated policy is going to the board of education for first review next month. The proposed language will include sexual orientation, gender identity and transgender status,” said DPS spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong.

Aurora Public Schools officials say they revised their policies in June to reflect changes to the law, but did not feel it was necessary to spell out just which groups are included.

“Because the bullying policy covers all students, it necessarily includes all protected classes … and is therefore compliant with statute,” said spokeswoman Paula Hans.

The Douglas County School District includes sexual orientation among the protected classes in its discrimination and harassment policies, and bullying is included in its definition of activities that can constitute harassment. It even spells out exactly what harassment based on sexual orientation might include. However, the bullying policy itself does not mention sexual orientation, but says “any student.”

And in Jeffco Public Schools, the anti-bullying policy notes that it is prohibited “against any student for any reason,” including those “against whom federal and state laws prohibit discrimination.” Sexual orientation falls into those protected classes.

Advocate says language makes a difference

Clark insists he’s not splitting hairs when he takes school boards to task for not spelling out that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are included among protected groups.

“Having a comprehensive policy is one of the lead indicators of students reporting a sense of safety,” he said.

Surveys show that comprehensive policies that specifically include sexual orientation among the protected classes of students do seem to impact school culture for the better.

One national study found that 65.7 percent of students in schools with comprehensive policies heard remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” at school. That compares to 73.7 percent of students in schools with generic policies, and 74.1 percent in schools with no policy.

Colorado’s remaining six largest districts – Adams 12 Five Star, Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, Colorado Springs, Poudre and Mesa County – do have fully inclusive policies in both areas. The Mesa County board adopted its revised policy last week.

Boulder Valley and Colorado Springs, in fact, have gone beyond state requirements and include even stricter language about harassment or bullying based on “gender identity” or “gender expression.”

More districts will be revising policies

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, says she’s not making excuses for the laggard districts, but she believes many of them are in the process of revising their policies. She said she expects more will be updated in coming months as time permits.

By the numbers
  • One national study found that 65.7 percent of students in schools with comprehensive policies specifically including sexual orientation among protected classes heard remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” at school.
  • That compares to 73.7 percent of students in schools with generic policies, and 74.1 percent in schools with no policy.

Bullying reports

  • Nationwide, 84.6 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report being verbally harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
  • Another 40.1 percent of such students report being physically harassed in the past year, and 18.8 percent report being assaulted.

Source: GLSEN School Climate Survey

“Boards are pretty inundated with the needs to create policies,” she said. “And if they don’t have a ‘policy person,’ if it’s the superintendent responsible for drafting the updated policies, that superintendent may be more worried about getting kids picked up, getting teachers in the classroom and getting school underway than about updating their bullying policy.”

She said CASB, which has model policies available for districts to consider and adapt to their own needs, has begun to get more calls from districts in the process of revising their bullying and harassment policies to include the language of sexual orientation. But there’s still some confusion about changes in the law.

“Remember the role of the school board,” Urschel said. “They’re elected to reflect the values of a community, and there are communities who will say their first responsibility is to keep all kids safe. They’ll say a kid is a kid, so why must they list different classes of kids? But (state law) does delineate those classes.”

House Bill 1254, passed in 2011, updated the state’s bullying definition to include any verbal, physical or electronic act or gesture intended to coerce, intimidate or cause harm to a student for any reason, including academic performance or “against whom federal and state laws prohibit discrimination.”

Those laws spell out protected classes of people, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, race, creed, color, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, ancestry or need for special education services. It made Colorado one of 14 states to explicitly protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

The bill generated a fair amount of controversy last year, with critics complaining it was overreaching and that such policies were best left to local school districts to decide, without state interference.

In 2008, Senate Bill 200 expanded Colorado’s anti-discrimination law to cover sexual orientation. It, too, was a hot-button topic at the time.

School officials generally accept the need to act

Urschel said that despite the past controversies, she’s feeling no pushback now from school districts. Rather, it’s just a question of priorities:

“Most say they’ve got their policies, and they agree they need to tweak them, but they’ve got other things they have to take care of first. Funding is at the top of the priority heap. But we don’t have people saying they just won’t do it.”

“Most (school districts) say they’ve got their policies, and they agree they need to tweak them, but they’ve got other things they have to take care of first … But we don’t have people saying they just won’t do it.”
— Jane Urschel, CASB

Clark, too, says there’s been no resistance to adopting the sexual orientation language, just inertia.

“At their core, I believe that people who are in education have the best interests of students at heart, and want to ensure that kids aren’t beaten up or harassed. No one wants to see that,” he said. “And what we’ve heard is that districts really are taking at look at their policies.”

He praised CASB, as well as the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Education Association, for their ongoing assistance in encouraging districts to revise their policies.

Nationwide, 84.6 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report being verbally harassed, 40.1 percent physically harassed, and 18.8 percent assaulted in the past year because of their sexual orientation. That doesn’t include the numbers of “straight” young people who may be teased or harassed because of mistaken assumptions about their sexual orientation.

‘Gender expression’ as a protected class

Holy Spady, 16, a junior at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, said she’s grateful for the comprehensive policies in her district, which not only specify sexual orientation but also “gender identity.”

“I’ve seen a decrease in the amount of bullying because there’s greater knowledge about gender identity and expression. More people know about it than ever before, and one of the main reasons is because it’s in the anti-bullying policy.
— Holy Spady, 16

“There are people who identify as ‘gender queer’ or transgender, and people have questions about it,” she said. “People don’t always know off the bat what that is. Before now, there was no vocabulary to define and express their concerns. This creates a sense of empowerment. It gives them the vocabulary to pinpoint a problem and solve it.”

Often, such issues boil down to simply using the proper pronoun, “he” or “she,” to refer to someone whose gender may not be immediately apparent to observers, Spady said.

“Honestly, I’ve seen a decrease in the amount of bullying because there’s greater knowledge about gender identity and expression,” she said. “More people know about it than ever before, and one of the main reasons is because it’s in the anti-bullying policy.

“Now people know what to call it. The bullying regresses because of lot of bullying is just based on ignorance. The more familiar it becomes to you, the less reason you have to criticize it.”

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.