CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For the first time in state history, gay and lesbian students will be expressly protected from school bullying after the West Virginia Board of Education unanimously adopted a new anti-bullying policy Wednesday.Under the new policy, bullying based on 13 categories including race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation and "gender identity or expression" qualifies as a Level 3 disciplinary offense.Punishments for harassment can range from detention to suspension from school for 10 days. Students can also be punished for "vulgar or offensive speech" online if it disrupts school learning. "Students and teachers alike are entitled to a safe educational environment," said state Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple. "This policy addresses behavior and school safety comprehensively by addressing inappropriate behaviors proactively to promote safe and supportive learning conditions."The policy will go into effect July 1.Bradley Milam, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, called the board's approval a major victory for civil rights in the state."We all know that students are targeted because of physical appearance, disability, or perceived sexual orientation every day in schools all across West Virginia," said Milam. "This policy will ensure that these kinds of bullying incidents and many others will decrease. This could make all the difference in the world to students across West Virginia who are bullying victims."In adopting this policy, West Virginia joins a number of states that have created statewide guidelines recommending districts to protect LGBT students from harassment.Across the country, 14 states have drafted bullying laws that include protections for LGBT students, said Alison Gill of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national group that tracks LGBT protections in schools around the country.The policy drew ire Wednesday from conservative groups that said the rule-change would curb students' free speech and seemed to condone homosexuality."Why include sexual orientation and gender identity?" asked Tom Fast, of Fayette County. "This is an attempt to sanction the homosexual agenda and lifestyle." Jeremy Dys, president of the conservative values group Family Policy Council, said he had "grave concerns" about the anti-bullying measure. Dys said it "unconstitutionally limits free speech" and gives "unbridled authority" to teachers to crack down on students who speak out against homosexuality.The state Board of Education put the proposal on public comment and received feedback from 33 county boards of education and more than 800 school principals and teachers about the impact of the policy.Reach Amy Julia Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.