Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero has expressed her concerns to the Knox County Board of Education and Superintendent in regards to proposed wording changes in the board's harassment policies.
Rogero said she wants Knoxville to be a welcoming city for everybody and she fears the proposed changes to remove existing language in the policy will send the opposite message to employees and students, even if that's not what is intended.
The policy as it stands would continue to include protections from harassment of anyone based on age, national origin, disability, religion, race, color, genetics, veteran status "or any other federally protected area."
The changes would remove language like "actual or perceived gender" and "sexual orientation" and replace them with the word "sex" in the school district's harassment policy for employees and students.
The Knox County Board of Education brought up the topic at their meeting in September. Board members said that if the changes in language were adopted, there would be no change as to who is protected.
In a statement, the district wrote, "Knox County Schools does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of its students and employees for any reason. Proposed changes to the policies would not limit those protections."
The board is expected to decide how to move forward at their board meeting in October.
Her full statement can be read here:
“As Mayor, I have always said that I want Knoxville to be a welcoming city for everybody. As the Board of Education considers possible changes to the language in the school system’s harassment policies, I would like to offer some personal perspective. I rarely take a position on school board policy, but this is about who we are as a community and the message we send to our residents and the outside world. I will also be issuing this statement publicly.
In 2012, I proposed and City Council approved the addition of the categories of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ to our non-discrimination policy for City employees. I did this after consultation with our Law Department, who assured me that adding these categories created no conflict whatsoever with existing state and federal protections. I believed that it was important to send a clear message to our employees and our community that discrimination in any form will not be tolerated in our organization. Since those categories are not explicitly protected under federal law, we wanted to ensure that everyone at the City of Knoxville understood our expectations in creating a welcoming and inclusive workplace.
Knox County Commission adopted similar language to protect County employees in 2013. Other local institutions including the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Valley Authority have similar explicit protections for those categories. So do many of our largest local private employers, including Alcoa and Scripps Networks.
My concern as you consider the proposed changes is that removing the existing language in the school board’s policy will send the opposite message to your employees and your students, even if that is not what you intend. I have heard many questions and fears from members of the local LGBT community, as well as Knox County parents and teachers, about what the consequences might be of deleting that language. The Knoxville Police Department works closely with Knox County Schools on anti-bullying initiatives, and I appreciate the commitment you have all shown to that effort. We know that statistically, LGBT students are among the most vulnerable to bullying and among the most at risk of self-harm and suicide.
I urge you to consider carefully the message that may be sent by the proposed changes in the policy. If there is a need to add the word ‘sex’ to the existing language, that could be done without removing any existing protections.
I would be happy to discuss the issue with you. Thank you for your service to the students, teachers and residents of Knox County.