UPDATE 12/15/11 @ 12:05 a.m.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The West Virginia State Board of Education unanimously decided Wednesday to strengthen its anti-bullying policy, including protection for kids being bullied about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Ray Blevins, a future school counselor and the head of Marshall University's Lesbian, Gay and Transgender Organization (LGBTO), said the announcement immediately was heard throughout the gay community.
"I really think the biggest problem is teachers don't think they can do anything and not face repercussions. So, I hope this will say we'll back you, we're behind you," Blevins said.
The new policy includes new punishment guidelines. Any student who targets another because of their sexual orientation or gender identity will receive an automatic 10-day suspension from school. It also takes into account social media. Students will be held accountable for what they write on sites like Facebook or Twitter, if it's a disruption at school.
Justin Murphy, the former president of Marshall’s Lambda Society, said he knows from experience that being bullied in high school isn’t easy.
"Your only worry in high school should be about the next day’s English test, not how you're going to escape abuse everyday,” Murphy said.
The strengthened policy is something Murphy and Blevins wish they'd had.
"I'm so proud to be a West Virginian and I'm proud to be a school counselor in the making because this means wherever I go in the state my viewpoints will be cared about,” Blevins said.
"I mean, it does get better. I mean, I can say that. That's what I hope this change is going to send a message to our kids that it does get better," Murphy said.
The new policy goes into effect July 1, 2012, in West Virginia.
The proposal, called Policy 4373, blends five separate policies on student behavior and safe schools into one, and also incorporates new issues. The changes that acknowledge the targeting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students will go into effect July 1.
Violators of the anti-bullying policy can receive a maximum penalty of a 10-day suspension from school.
"I'm absolutely elated because the policy provides stronger protections to all students, including LGBT students, but also every student in the state of West Virginia," said Bradley Milam, executive director of civil rights group Fairness West Virginia. "I couldn't be happier with what happened today."
The policy extends beyond school property to the virtual world, holding students accountable for "vulgar or offensive speech" online if it disrupts the learning atmosphere at school. It includes blogs and social media postings "created for the purpose of inviting others to indulge in disruptive and hateful conduct towards a student or staff member," the policy says.
Melanie Purkey, executive director of the State Office of Healthy Schools, had said the last policies on bullying were drafted about a decade ago before text messaging and Facebook became popular.
The board heard from 10 speakers Wednesday before expediting a voice vote on the policy, which initially had been much further down a lengthy meeting agenda.
Conservative groups have called the policy an attempt to promote a homosexual agenda. They say bullying is defined by a person's actions, not the victim's status.
In addition, the policy "gives unbridled authority to school officials to censor any speech when that official subjectively deems such speech to be offensive or outside the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior," Family Policy Council President Jeremy Dys told the board.
West Virginia Family Foundation President Kevin McCoy said in 2002 the board halted an anti-bullying program promoted by the state Attorney General's office that was being used in about 20 schools. That program had similar language on sexual orientation and gender identity.
"We will be back if you do this," McCoy told the board.
Amelia Davis Courts, assistant state superintendent of schools, told the board that a U.S. Department of Education analysis of state bullying laws and policies released this month affirms "that we're moving in the right direction.
The analysis "supports the elements that are prescribed in Policy 4373 and it shows how this policy does meet the requirements and is a model policy for counties and schools," Courts said. "Really it affirms that solid policymaking can have a positive, long-term impact on reducing bullying."
Leslie Bakker, whose son attended high school in Charleston years ago, said he was assaulted and called names, stopped riding the school bus starting in sixth grade and didn't use bathrooms or drink liquids at school out of fear of further attacks.
She said approval of the policy is "heartening to me. It's been a long time coming."