Students, faculty and activists gathered at Metropolitan Community College - Penn Valley to demand a new proposed policy be changed to ensure protection for students and the LGBTQ+ community. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

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In trying to develop a policy to prevent problematic relationships between employees and students, Metropolitan Community College raised concerns from LGBTQ community members that it was going too far.

MCC employees and students say both the college’s current policy and a recent proposal cast too wide a net, requiring MCC community members to discuss their love lives with bosses and human resources to get approval of relationships that never presented a risk.  

Instead of only targeting relationships where one partner supervises or evaluates the other, the policies prohibit most relationships between employees and students across the college’s five Kansas City area campuses, unless the employee discloses the relationship and receives an exemption.

That means a part-time history professor can’t date someone taking a motorcycle safety course at a different campus without permission from MCC. 

Objections also have centered around the difficulties the policies pose for LGBTQ staff and students, who could be forced to out themselves by disclosing relationships.

MCC’s board of directors voted down the most recent romantic and sexual relationships policy proposal on June 24 during a meeting that overlapped with a nearby LGBTQ rally against the measure. 

But the board’s decision means MCC keeps a very similar existing policy, which some advocates say is still problematic.

Metropolitan Community College adjunct psychology professor Cindy Cerrentano leads activists in a series of chants at the June 24, 2021, LGBTQ rally at MCC – Penn Valley in Kansas City, Missouri. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

“While it might be billed as a win for our LGBTQ rally, it is essentially the same policy, and I think it’s just sort of obfuscating the truth,” said Cindy Cerrentano, an adjunct professor of psychology for MCC who teaches online and has been involved in advocating for a more narrow policy. 

“I think the real win comes that the board knows that they are being watched, and they know that there will be accountability,” Cerrentano said. “Though we were hoping to have the end of the fight, I think we’re just getting warmed up.”

Why students, employees were opposed to new relationship policy

At its latest meeting, the board removed the proposed “non-fraternization” policy from a larger document on employee standards of conduct.

The policy would have governed when a consensual romantic, sexual or dating relationship is prohibited by MCC. It banned relationships between any university employees and any students, as well as between supervisors and those they supervise. 

Members of the LGBTQ community and other opponents agreed a policy was needed to address relationships with inappropriate power dynamics, but they argued the proposed policy was so broadly cast that it covered many relationships that are not problematic, including those between student employees and their fellow students. 

Married people and dependents were automatically exempt.

“As a married lesbian I’m not impacted by this policy, but as someone who has worked in higher ed for many years … I feel for those who are not ready to come out,” Cerrentano said ahead of the board’s vote. 

Trin Carroll, a student worker at MCC’s Longview campus, said he isn’t worried about people knowing he’s part of the LGBTQ community, but he’s dating another student worker who isn’t out to everyone. Carroll has been consulting his boss about what would happen if he and his partner had to disclose their relationship.

Carroll was at the June 24 rally, as was Fin Kinsey, a recent graduate who doesn’t want anyone to be hurt by having to come out before they are ready. Kinsey uses they/them pronouns.

“It’s always a balancing act of choosing when to come out and who to come out to and in what capacity, because you’re not always able to even be fully out,” they said. “I just hate to see anything that makes it any harder than it already is.”

What MCC’s existing policy on relationships says

In contrast to the policy that was voted down, MCC’s existing relationships policy, approved in March, does not address relationships with supervisors. 

Daniel Wright, a full-time professor of speech and theater at MCC’s Maple Woods campus, said he interprets the definition of employee in the current policy as excluding student workers. 

That gives it one advantage over the policy that was rejected, he said. 

“I’m happy that we were able to get some movement that would keep students from being forced into that position.” 

Daniel Wright, a professor of speech and theater at Metropolitan Community College – Maple Woods, attended the June 24, 2021, rally at MCC – Penn Valley to demand the change of the school’s new proposed policy that would disproportionately impact the LGBTQ+ community at MCC. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

Cerrentano agreed that the current policy might exclude student workers but pointed out students dating college employees would still be outed. 

“There’s going to be a lot more people that are negatively impacted by this policy than those who are protected by it,” she said.

MCC spokesman Blake Fry was not immediately able to answer questions about who falls under the policy.

Several nearby colleges or universities, including the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the University of Kansas’ Lawrence campus and Johnson County Community College, have policies on consensual romantic relationships that more specifically address when an imbalance of power exists.

In an email to the board and MCC Chancellor Kimberly Beatty, Cerrentano named UMKC, Johnson County Community College and San Diego Community College District as positive examples MCC could follow.

The San Diego Community College District policy specifically states that while relationships between employees and students under their authority are problematic, “the fact that an individual is an employee of the District does not in and of itself mean that the employee has authority over every student enrolled in the District.”

Relationship policy chosen by an unusual process

The process that led MCC here has affected Cerrentano’s trust in the system.

The board’s vote in June came after an initial relationships policy was approved March 25, according a document in MCC’s online policies and procedures collection.

Cerrentano said MCC community members expressed concern about that policy being too broad but were told not to worry because it would be replaced.

Wright was part of the chancellor’s subcommittee tasked with refining the policy.

The group came up with a more narrowly tailored guide that focused on relationships with true power differences, Wright said, and he felt heard by MCC’s legal and human resources departments. 

But in a departure from the normal “ground-up” process of developing policy, the board instead brought up a different, broader policy, he said. 

People with concerns about the updated policy responded by sending emails, contacting the Kansas City LGBTQ Commission and staging the rally outside the June 24 board meeting. 

At the meeting, Beatty asked that the new standards of conduct be approved without the section addressing relationships, allowing the current policy to remain in place. 

The chancellor said board policies should give broad direction and asked the MCC community to trust her to implement the policy well. 

“I would ask that everyone trust that I am looking out for the best interests of the college, students, faculty and staff,” she said. “And while it may not be apparent because I haven’t shared every step I plan to take, please give me a chance to do my job.”

Beatty has been chancellor for about four years.

Fry said Beatty is committed to equity and that she will address concerns through creating procedures to implement the policy.

“She’s made a commitment that this will be put in place in a way that will respect employees and respect privacy,” he said. 

Cerrentano said trust might be difficult to rebuild. 

“The reality is she hasn’t done anything to earn trust, especially not through this process,” she said. 

Now that the updated policy has been voted down, Wright said he doesn’t expect the board to revisit it any time soon, meaning next steps may entail another push by faculty to develop yet another new plan. 

“We will keep fighting this from the ground up until they get a better policy,” he said.

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.