The Maryland board of education voted Tuesday for the first time to explicitly protect gay and lesbian students from harassment in the state's public schools. The board voted 8-3 to include "sexual orientation" as one of the categories in which students "have the right to educational environments that are safe." Approval came after nearly four years of debate. Several other categories, including race, age, and religion, were protected in the regulation, which covers school safety standards under the new federal No Child Left Behind Act. "There's no hidden agenda here" to infuse teaching about homosexuality in the state's public school curriculum, said Philip S. Benzil of Westminster, who
participated in the meeting and voted by telephone. Maryland becomes the ninth state to adopt language protecting students regardless of sexual orientation, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.
The Maryland board had backed away from the explicit language four times in as many years, responding to legislative and community fears that the policy's wording would require the teaching of homosexuality in classrooms statewide, or at least would allow homosexuality to be viewed as an acceptable lifestyle. Speakers at state board meetings said that the inclusion of sexual orientation in state regulation would open the door to acceptance of bestiality, incest, or pedophilia. But state education officials, gay rights activists, and students insisted that language was needed to protect gay and lesbian youths from harassment. The resolution approved Tuesday treats sexual orientation as a student safety issue and one that "doesn't involve curriculum or teacher training," according
to state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.