The Anoka-Hennepin School District is being sued to address “pervasive” anti-gay bullying in the district and for its policy that requires staff to remain neutral when discussing issues related to sexual orientation, which some have characterized as a “gag policy.”
The students represented in the case were verbally and physically harassed for their actual or perceived sexual orientation or when they did not conform to stereotypical gender roles, causing some to transfer schools or drop out. The complaint alleges the district did not respond adequately to the bullying.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on July 21 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Faegre & Benson, LLP on behalf of five current and former students from the district who have suffered persistent anti-GLBT harassment in school, which the groups claim was exacerbated by the policy.
The Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy states that district staff “shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation” and “such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations.”
The “discriminatory” policy leaves GLBT students out in the cold, said Ilona Turner, the NCLR’s lead attorney on the case.
“The simple existent of the policy sends a stigmatizing message to LGBT students that being gay is so wrong and so shameful that it can’t even be mentioned in schools,” Turner asserted. “It keeps teachers and staff from responding effectively when they see harassment of LGBT students going on because they are not sure how they can respond.”
The SPLC began an investigation in November 2010 after an alarming number of students in the district took their own lives and community members reported incidences of anti-gay persecution, according to Sam Wolfe, the SPLC’s lead attorney on the case.
Wolfe said the investigation showed the district has a “serious problem” with harassment. He explained the district’s response has been insufficient and continuing to stand behind the neutrality policy alienates GLBT students.
“You can’t have a welcoming environment when you have a policy that singles out LGBT students,” Wolfe stated. “You’ve got to get rid of that policy.”
Currently, the school board is not willing to change the policy, according to Mary Olson, the district’s director of communications and public relations. She said the policy reflects the needs of the community, which remains “divided” on GLBT issues, and does not prevent staff from discussing GLBT-related matters.
“The [school] board feels strongly that the policy is appropriate for our district,” Olson said. “We object to it being characterized as being a gag order.”
A statement was released on the school district’s website the day before the lawsuit was filed urging the NCLR and the SPLC to work with them on developing more training for students and staff to support GLBT students.
But without getting rid of the policy, Turner said, the district cannot implement effective training to protect all students.
“Their response to stick by the gag policy is hypocritical,” Turner said. “There is no way to have anti-bullying programs when you can’t say the word gay.”
The U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights have been in discussions with the district to address the need for further guidance on GLBT-related topics, the district’s statement says.
The school district is addressing the matter and will continue to improve their resources to best serve students and staff, according to Olson.
“We are very concerned about it,” Olson emphasized. “We are definitely going to be ratcheting up our efforts to make sure all our students are safe.”
The district recently added information to their website to help students and staff deal with GLBT issues in school, including a brochure by the union Education Minnesota, which outlines how staff may deal with conflicts involving anti-GLBT slurs or other forms of bullying.