Advocates Say California's Bias Rules Too Narrow

Women's advocates say proposed regulations prohibiting sexual discrimination in public schools fail to adequately protect girls and boys from sexual harassment. The new rules also fail to protect pregnant and parenting teens, as well as gay students.

Sex harassment and other forms of discrimination against girls and homosexuals is rampant in the California schools, say women's advocates, and the long-awaited new regulations addressing the problem are far from what is required.

“It's outrageous that girls in California schools have been waiting more than a dozen years for these for these regulations and they do not adequately discourage sex discrimination and harassment in schools,” said Susan Berke Fogel, legal director of the California Women's Law Center.

She cited, as an example, the proposed regulations' use of the words “unwelcome conduct” to define sexual harassment. “When is harassment welcome in a school setting?” she asked. “A sexual advance from a teacher to a student is illegal, period. There's nothing to analyze.”

The proposed revisions also fail to take into account gender discrimination against gay and lesbian students and transsexuals, she said, and do not make gender a protected status.

Fogel and representatives of six other women's organizations will testify Thursday July 13 at the state Board of Education's final public hearing in Sacramento on the proposed regulations.

The new rules implement the state's anti-discrimination education laws.

The board in Sacramento will issue a formal response to public comments at a later date and it could modify the proposed regulations.

The women's advocates plan to step up their campaign against the regulations and bring national pressure to bear on the board.

“The regulations only minimally address sexual harassment despite the fact that they are mandated to do so and despite the fact that sexual harassment is rampant in schools, even in the presence of adults that are responsible for preventing this behavior,” Fogel added.

Attorneys for the California State Board of Education did not comment but provided a copy of the 25-page proposed revisions for kindergarten through high school, including strike-outs that indicate language expected to be contested in the hearing.

The state legislature in 1987 had directed the board of education to develop regulations to accompany the state's Sex Equity in Education Act, which like Title IX of the U.S Civil Rights Code, guarantees equal access to education by boys and girls. The regulations were not written, however, and the Women's Law Center sued successfully in 1994 to force the board to come up with clear and comprehensive rules for students and administrators. The proposed regulations define sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct based upon protected status that is severe or pervasive, which unreasonably disrupts an individual's education or work environment or creates a hostile education or work environment.”

Fogel called the proposed regulations “too narrow” and took particular issue with the exclusion of pregnancy or marital status as a consideration for a student to be given “protected status,” that is, someone who is vulnerable to illegal discrimination.

“These girls are completely ignored, and pregnant and parenting teens often are given substandard education in violation of the law,” she said. Such girls are often encouraged, coerced to attend alternate schools where college preparatory courses are not available, she added.

One teen who had given birth returned to school and completed all her class work but was not permitted to attend the prom or publicly receive her diploma, Fogel said. School officials said she had been absent for too many days.

Among the groups opposing the proposed revisions are the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; California NOW, the California Commission on the Status of Women; California Alliance Concerned with School-Age Parenting and Pregnancy Prevention; the American Association of University Women and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.