In the far reaches of Northern Idaho, past the university in Moscow and the tourists in Coeur d’Alene, you’ll find the West Bonner County School District on the banks of the Pend Oreille river.
The district, headquartered in Priest River, has just under a thousand kids in three elementaries, a middle and a high school.
Despite its size and location, the West Bonner District has something that only a minority of school districts in Idaho have: written policies protecting gay and transgender employees from discrimination.
“At the end of the day, we want the best teacher in front of our students,” West Bonner’s school board chair Sandra Brower. “I hope that providing a policy that protects the personal rights of our staff will allow us to move beyond certain discriminatory social barriers and get to educating our youth.”
Workplace rights for gay and transgender employees are the center of a national debate. The supreme court is expected to decide this year whether the Civil Rights Act protects people from being fired or discriminated against at work because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The case could have an impact on Idaho, one of two dozen states that do not include those protections at the state level.
While state law doesn’t include protections for gay and transgender employees, local agencies — like businesses and school districts — can decide to put those protections in workplace policy.
About one-third of Idaho school districts do.
An EdNews review of 159 districts and charters found:
- 35 percent of personnel policies protect sexual orientation.
- 22 percent of personnel policies protect gender identity.
- 21 percent of policies protect both.
Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln, chair of Add the Words Idaho — a campaign to get protections for sexual orientation and gender identity included in state law — said that’s a lower number than she would like to see.
Still, it gives her some hope.
“As a new generation of educators and staff members are going into school districts it’s important that they be able to live authentically and just be themselves and feel supported by their administrations,” she said. “People perform better when they can show up to a place where they feel safe and respected for their whole humanity.”
In 2017, the Williams Institute of UCLA estimated that some 32,000 gay and transgender Idahoans are “vulnerable to discrimination” in the workplace because their employer doesn’t protect for gender identity and sexual orientation.
In some counties, the largest employer is the local school district.
The Idaho School Boards Association does recommend that districts include protections for gender identity and sexual orientation in their personnel policies.
While the protections are not required, ISBA’s lawyers recommend it would be “unwise to discriminate” on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, since the 9th Circuit Federal Court would likely decide those are protected classes in the event of a lawsuit, policy director Quinn Perry said.
EdNews’ review found many small districts — including places like Wilder, Cascade and Wallace — include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in board policy.
Some big districts don’t have policies that include both protections, including the state’s largest school district: West Ada. However, the city of Meridian, where West Ada is headquartered, has banned discrimination for gender identity and sexual orientation through a citywide ordinance.
Board Chairman Ed Klopfenstein said that school handbooks in the district include protections for students based on gender identity and sexual orientation, but the board hasn’t added those specific protections to district policy yet.
He expects the board to discuss adding those protections this school year.
“Aligning with federal rules is one thing, yes, but making sure that people feel like they can work here without having to face discrimination is very important as well,” he said.