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Bradley Milam, the young executive director of Fairness West Virginia, thought it would be a challenge to convince his state's Board of Education to enact an LGBT-inclusive bullying law. It turned out to be easier than he thought.
Back in the spring, the West Virginia legislature passed a new law adding anti-bullying language to Board of Education policy, but it didn't specify that students would be protected from harassment due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Milam's LGBT rights organization sent over statistics and research on gay and transgender bullying to the Office of Healthy Schools at the state Board of Education. Milam followed the information up with face-to-face meetings with BOE staff.
"In all our interactions, the staff were remarkably supportive," Milam tells The Advocate. "They looked at our research and were convinced [an LGBT-inclusive policy] was the best kind of policy."
The Office of Healthy Schools drafted LGBT-inclusive language for the existing bullying law and recommended it to the full Board of Education. A 60-day period was opened for the public to comment on the proposed change--33 county boards of education and more than 800 school officials shared their opinions on the policy.
"The Family Research Council affiliate here--the Family Policy Council of West Virginia--expressed their viewpoints time and time again with education officials," Milam says. Unsurprisingly, the antigay group railed against the LGBT language.
Nonetheless, the BOE president remained supportive, even writing an op-ed in a local newspaper that assuaged fears that the new bullying language would trample religious freedoms.
At the BOE meeting on Wednesday, a delegation of four students was in attendance and one spoke candidly about her bullying experience.
"She's a sophomore and ended up moving to her current school because of the bullying experience she had at her previous high school," Milam says. "She talked a lot about the administration, faculty, and other students at her present school being supportive. But that's not the case at the school she attended before and that's not the case for the majority of high school students in West Virginia."
The BOE approved the new policy unanimously. It goes into effect July 1 and categorizes bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as a disciplinary offense.
"Punishments for harassment can range from detention to suspension from school for 10 days," according to the Charleston Gazette. "Students can also be punished for 'vulgar or offensive speech' online if it disrupts school learning."
Even though state officials were incredibly helpful through this process, Milam says he won't be surprised if the Family Policy Council of West Virginia has some tricks up their sleeves. The group already put out a call on a radio show asking for anyone aggrieved by the new LGBT policy to reach out to them for "help," Milam says.