JCCC revises guidelines on nondiscrimination

The following article appeared in The Kansas City Star.

“JCCC revises guidelines on nondiscrimination”
Melodee Hall Blobaum
The Kansas City Star
April 13, 2006

Five months after racist and anti-gay graffiti appeared in restrooms at Johnson County Community College, the college’s trustees quietly added sexual orientation to the institution’s nondiscrimination policy. The action at a hastily called special board meeting Monday night surprised even proponents of the change and drew criticism from a trustee who opposed the revision.

Trustees approved the policy change during the open portion of the meeting, though it was also discussed in a closed-door executive session.

“The meeting was a surprise,” said Kami Day, an associate professor at the college who had advocated that the policy be changed to protect gender identity.

“It’s a step, and a huge improvement.”

The school’s Faculty Association brought the matter to the board and administrators at a Collegial Steering Committee meeting in January, said Vincent Clark, president of the association.

“We believed that a number of students, faculty members and staff members didn’t feel safe on campus without some explicit indication in the policy itself of protection for sexual orientation,” Clark said.

Some on the campus are reluctant to bring insults to the attention of authorities, Clark said. But at least two incidents were reported to college security.

In incidents Nov. 1 and Dec. 2, vandals scrawled racially derogatory and anti-gay words and drawings in men’s restrooms, said Larry Dixon, the college’s manager of public safety.

The graffiti didn’t appear to be directed at anyone in particular.

“It was just despicable words,” he said.

Beyond the graffiti, Day said, some teachers aren’t sensitive to their gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students.

“It’s a lack of awareness more than anything,” she said. “There needs to be public discussion.”

Trustee Benjamin Hodge agreed about the need for public discussion.

He opposed the change in policy as well as the manner in which it was handled.

“I am completely certain that we should not have discussed this issue in the manner that we did,” he said.

Hodge said he believed that including the policy discussion in a special meeting on short notice was done to minimize exposure to the issue and reduce public input.

“It was probably legal, but not honorable,” he said.

But Trustee Elaine Perilla, who is chairwoman of the board and sits on the steering committee, said the policy change had received lots of public input.

The matter was discussed at the steering committee’s meetings in January and March.

The committee makes recommendations to the Board of Trustees on matters not related to salary negotiations.

“We had letters from all over the place, mostly driven by the Faculty Association,” she said.

Trustee Jon Stewart, who also sits on the steering committee, said the matter had not arisen in a regularly scheduled board meeting. But, he said, trustees had promised to have a report for the steering committee meeting before the regularly scheduled trustees meeting April 26.

Hodge, Perilla and Stewart said the policy was discussed in the closed session Monday night. The meeting was closed both to discuss nonelected personnel matters and for consultation with the board’s attorney on a matter protected by attorney-client privilege.

Mark Ferguson, the board’s attorney, said attorney-client privilege prevented him from commenting on the closed-door discussion.

Topeka attorney Mike Merriam, who staffs the Kansas Press Association’s legal hot line, said it’s conceivable that board members could seek an attorney’s advice on their legal exposure if they do or do not adopt a policy. But, he said, “whether or not the policy is a good one and should be adopted is an open meeting matter, no question about that.”

Perilla and Stewart said board members had the opportunity to discuss the policy when it came to a vote in the open part of the meeting.

Only Hodge commented, as he voted against the change. At that time, he said the policy change did not represent the values of the people of Johnson County or Kansas.

“We should have sought public input,” he said Tuesday. “It would have been most appropriate to invite public comments.”

To reach Melodee Hall Blobaum, call (816) 234-7733 or send e-mail to mblobaum@kcstar.com.

The new policy

The revised Johnson County Community College nondiscrimination policy reads, in part:

“Johnson County Community College is a place where freedom of expression and civility are encouraged. … All personnel policies of the Johnson County Community College shall be applied without regard to a person’s race, color, age, sex, religion, marital status, national origin, disability, veteran’s status, sexual orientation or other factors which can not be lawfully considered, to the extent specified by applicable federal and state laws.”