By Matthew A. Ward
SUFFOLK, Va (Reuters) - A Virginia school district is considering banning cross-gender dressing in a move proponents said aims to protect students from harassment, but which civil liberties and gay rights groups said would amount to an assault on free speech.
Board members said they wanted to protect the children in the school district in Suffolk, about 20 miles from Norfolk, from the types of tragedies such as killings and suicides tied to bullying in other parts of the country.
The proposed dress code would prohibit students from wearing clothing "not in keeping with a student's gender" and that "causes a disruption and/or distracts others from the education process or poses a health or safety concern."
The board opted to pursue the ban after teachers at one of the district's three high schools said some male students were dressing like girls, prompting complaints from other students, district spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw said.
Board Vice Chairwoman Thelma Hinton, in supporting the ban, cited the killing of a 15-year-old California cross-dressing student by another student in 2008 and the suicide of a 14-year-old gay student last year in New York after online bullying.
"When a situation is brought up to me, I'm going to speak out if I have to speak out, and take a stand," Hinton said Thursday at a board meeting, adding that she was more concerned about the safety of the district's 14,000 students than civil rights.
"It has nothing to do with a person's gender -- who they are," Hinton said. "Of course I don't want anyone's rights being violated, but I have done some research."
A vote on the issue is expected in March, and a ban would take effect on July 1 if approved, Bradshaw said.
ACLU SAYS BAN IS VAGUE AND DISCRIMINATORY
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia had already called the proposed ban unconstitutionally vague and sexually discriminatory even before Thursday's meeting.
After hearing board members offer general support for the ban on Thursday, the state ACLU plans to outline possible legal actions that could follow if it is adopted, Virginia ACLU Executive Director Kent Willis told Reuters.
James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, suggested that district administrators needed education on issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
"If a girl comes to school wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, is that considered cross-gender dressing?" he told Reuters, adding that a misunderstanding of the issues could actually make the students more susceptible to bullying.
"They're calling it cross-dressing, but if that individual was wearing clothes that reflect their gender identity, that's not cross-dressing, that's appropriate gender dressing," he said.
Several incidents where relentless verbal assaults and online harassment led to the suicides or murders of gay or lesbian teens over the past few years have led to tougher anti-bullying laws in some states.
New Jersey passed tougher anti-bullying laws after a gay college student killed himself after reportedly being bullied, and New York lawmakers were looking at how to stem the kind of harassment that led to the Buffalo teen's suicide.
In Suffolk, school board attorney Wendell Waller said opponents who read the proposed ban as a straight prohibition missed its intent. He also said the district would press ahead with what he described as a "very delicate" balancing act.
"It is not a straight prohibition of anything, unless it ... forms a disruption of the education process," Waller said.
(Editing By Colleen Jenkins, David Bailey and Cynthia Johnston)