NEW DIRECTION

Anoka-Hennepin School District Revises Policy In Wake Of Suicides, Rolling Stone Exposé

At a school-board meeting for Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district Monday night, teachers, parents and administrators came together to replace a policy linked to a cluster of gay teen suicides, reports the AP.

The Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy (SOCP) required teachers to remain “neutral” when issues of sexual orientation came up in the classroom. Critics claimed it was essentially a muzzle on teachers, preventing them from addressing LGBT issues in the classroom, and linked it to the nine student suicides in Anoka-Hennepin that took place from 2009 to 2011.

The district, which is represented by Michele Bachmann, claimed its existing anti-bullying policies specifically addressed sexual orientation and that the SOCP allowed teachers to address sexual orientation in age-appropriate and curriculum-based discussions. But in July 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a lawsuit against the district on behalf of six students who claimed they were discriminated against because of their real or perceived sexual orientation.

Last week, a Rolling Stone feature examined the tragic suicides of nine students in the region and the role homophobic bullying played in their deaths.

Dstrict officials contacted Queerty and other media outlets to refute the RS story, saying it “presents a grossly distorted portrayal of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, its schools and its communities.”

A statement from the district read, in part:

When a problem comes to our attention, we deal with it. Suicides in Anoka-Hennepin schools were rare until the 2009–10 school year. In fact, there were no suicides of enrolled students in the three years leading up to 2009-10, when there were four. There was one in the summer of 2010, and two in 2010-11. (Rolling Stone reports nine suicides of district students; some were not enrolled in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.) There have been none this year.

As soon as the second suicide occurred in fall of 2009, the district became very concerned and immediately brought in experts to provide awareness programs for students and staff with more in-depth training for specific key staff (counselors, social workers, nurses, etc.). The district also provided additional support staff to work with students at schools where the need was greatest. Concerned about the large number of students with emotional problems our staff were working with last spring, we hired a person to provide support for students and families over the summer when school staff are typically not available.

When we became aware that some teachers expressed confusion over whether or not they could intervene if they witnessed bullying of gay students, the School Board and superintendent went on record stating that staff are required to intervene in all instances of bullying or harassment. If they do not, they can be disciplined. We also provided training for staff. Most recently, the district contracted with CLIMB Theater to create a series of vignettes of typical bullying and harassment situations to show teachers how they can effectively address them. These were developed with input collected from all teachers at the beginning of the school year. CLIMB Theater actors and actresses presented these for all secondary teachers during our January staff development day. This was well received by staff.

Despite its criticism of the article, the district seems to have taken its message to heart. Anoka-Hennepin has now adopted a new measure, the Respectful Learning Environment Policy.

Writes the AP of the revised agenda:

When contentious political, religious, social matters or economic issues come up—it does not specifically cite sexuality issues—teachers shouldn’t try to persuade students to adopt a particular viewpoint. It calls for teachers to foster respectful exchanges of views. It also says in such discussions, staff should affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

But some students aren’t sure it goes far enough:

Rachael Hawley, a senior at Anoka High School who led a petition drive against the old policy, said she isn’t sure how much of a difference the new “Respectful Learning Environment” policy will make in the long run but hopes it opens the door to better discussions.

What do you think: Does the district need to specifically say, “no bullying of gay people” or is this generally worded “Respectful Learning Environment” policy enough?