Are Anoka-Hennepin ISD’s “Neutrality Policy” Or Negligent Teachers To Blame For LGBT Student Suicides?

In light of four LGBT student suicides from November 2009 to July 2010, last week the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s “neutrality” policy which directs teachers to discuss sexual orientation issues “in a respectful manner that is age-appropriate, factual, and pertinent to the relevant curriculum.” The Department of Justice and Education are also investigating the district after receiving a student complaints of sexual harassment. But is the neutrality policy really to blame for the student suicides and harassment or are public school kids just jerks?

The SPLC and NCLR lawsuit states that LGBT students and students perceived as LGBT were subjected to anti-LGBT slurs on a daily basis and were physically threatened or attacked by peers. While many of these abuses occurred in front of teachers, school officials, and school personnel who directly witnessed or received parental and student notice of the abuse took insufficient action to stop it.

Of the five students represented in the SPLC and NCLR lawsuit, one is lesbian, one is gay and one is bisexual. The other two are heterosexual students bullied for being perceived to be gay (one of the straight students has gay parents). The SPLC and NCLR want the school to repeal its neutrality policy.

Anoka-Hennepin teacher Jeri Schults says, “There’s so much we can’t do and say to help create a more accepting and affirming and welcoming environment that would eliminate some of that bullying in the first place.” Anoka Middle School teacher Jefferson Fietek calls the policy, “A censorship policy… [that] is creating a hostile toxic environment” that “sides with the oppressor.”

But Jeremy Tedesco, legal counsel for the Prop 8-defending Christian legal group, the Alliance Defense Fund says:

The [SPLC and NCLR] also claim that the policy makes it impossible for teachers to stop or respond effectively to bullying aimed at students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. The policy does no such thing. The neutrality it requires during classroom discussions certainly does not authorize teachers to stand idly by while students are bullied and harassed. Further, the district has separate anti-bullying policies in place. These policies make clear a teacher’s duty to stop or prevent bullying. The sexual orientation curriculum policy does not alter this duty at all.

Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendant Dennis Carlson says that the informal investigations into the suicides found no connection to bullying or harassment and that the real problem is that kids do not report bullying to administrators. But Michele Johnson, the mom of one of the deceased students (Samantha), says that she reported her daughter’s bullying to the school’s volleyball coach, vice principal, and counselor, all of whom did nothing. According to Stephanie Johnson’s friend, a girls’ coach witnessed the bullying and did nothing. Johnson adds that the investigation never even included her input and that the neutrality policy discourages students from talking to their teachers about anti-gay bullying and harassment.

So is the problem this “neutrality policy” which school faculty has interpreted as a mandate to remain silent on LGBT issues? Is the problem simply an inattentive system of administrators who do not respond to accusations of bullying with swift action? Or does that school district really have a problem of institutionalized homphobia characetrized by the policy and its personnel?

It’s worth noting that the schools in question exist within GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s congressional district. Bachmann’s 12th largest donor— Barbara Anderson and her husband George—also heads the Parents Action Initiative seeking to keep the neutrality policy in place. Anderson has also attacked the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network as a “dangerous” and “child corruption organization” known for its “homosexual propaganda.”

It’s also worth noting that the harassment comes not from LGBT students pushing their lifestyle in student’s faces but from straight bullies who violently sexualize queer identity. It’s no wonder, especially after hearing from Focus on the Family’s Candi Cushman who links frank discussion of homosexuality in the classroom with “controversial sexual topics”, “homosexuality lessons,” and endorsements of gay marriage.

What is “a homosexuality lesson” exactly? And what does classroom “neutrality” actually look like? Is it like when a news program interviews an LGBT-activist alongside a hate group member to provide “balance”?

If people like Ms. Cushman equate statements supporting LGBT identity with forcing kids to accept gay sex and gay marriage, then no wonder teachers and students feel so confined within the school’s neutrality policy.

Thumbnail image via MPR