By Matthew A. Ward
PORTSMOUTH, Virginia (Reuters) - A Virginia school district backed down from a plan to ban cross-gender dress by students after civil liberties and gay rights groups criticized the measure, and one threatened to sue.
School board members proposed the ban in early February, saying they wanted to protect children in the school district in Suffolk, about 20 miles from Norfolk, from killings and suicides tied to bullying in other parts of the country.
The original wording prohibited 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."
New wording released ahead of an expected school board vote on Thursday would ban students from wearing clothing causing "a substantial disruption and/or (which) substantially distracts from the education process, or poses a serious health or safety concern."
Documentation from the principal or someone acting on their behalf would need to accompany any prohibition.
The revision comes after civil liberties and gay rights groups criticized the move and one threatened to sue.
In a phone interview, board Chairman Michael J. Debranski told Reuters he will vote for the new wording, which he said leaves up to principals what students can and cannot wear and eliminates any discrimination of freedom of speech or expression.
"It doesn't matter what the person wears, it's a matter of (whether) whatever it is, if it's not clothes if it's an item of jewelry, is disruptive, and that is a judgment call by the principal," Debranski said.
"If it's a disruption in the class, then it would be brought to his attention. Other than that, a person would not be affected by it just because they are a cross dresser."
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, a district spokeswoman said in February.
Board Vice Chair Thelma V. Hinton, who first brought the issue to the board's attention, said she generally supports the new wording but will seek more information at Thursday's board meeting.
"There are some words in there that I'm not comfortable with, and I have some questions for the attorney," she said, declining to elaborate.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is no longer threatening to sue after the wording change was presented by board Attorney Wendell M. Waller, according to Debranski.
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. A 15-year-old California cross-dressing student was killed by another student in 2008 and a 14-year-old gay student committed suicide last year in New York after online bullying.
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.
(Reporting by Matthew A. Ward; Editing by Greg McCune)