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?

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  • Ambrose

    Two recent national research studies by GLSEN have confirmed that LGBTQ students face a disproportionately large amount of incidents of school-based bullying. Given that fact, the failure to address explicitly the rights of GLBTQ students in anti-bullying measures too often leaves staff and students feeling “off the hook”: They often simply don’t recognize anti-LGBTQ bullying for what it is. Witness the incident in which a gay teacher in the Fort Worth Independent School district was given a disciplinary letter earlier this school year when he had the temerity to write up a student for harassing anti-gay comments clearly directed at him as an individual, the last in a lengthy series of harassing comments and acts by said student and some of his friends. The administrators, though confronted with clear evidence of the student’s intent to single out this individual teacher as an object of humiliation, confused the student’s bullying behavior for protected “religious-based speech.” The district had recently adopted a good anti-bullying policy specifically addressing LGBTQ-based bullying, but had failed to train administrators on its content or implementation. So yes, to be effective, anti-bullying measures need specifically to address anti-LGBTQ bullying, and those policies need to be the basis of staff and student education on the issue.

  • the crustybastard

    Mandating the “respectful exchange of views” means that you can’t tell an irrational bigot that the irrational bigotry s/he’s spouting is either irrational or bigoted — because that would be “disrespectful.”

    “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
    – Isaac Asimov

  • Gina

    I second Ambrose. This revised policy is bullshit– and it comes down to a pithy “agree to disagree” mentality. Point blank, there is no other side to LGBT bullying. Bigotry is bigotry– even if it comes with handy-dandy Bible passages in tow. Society also had biblical passages to support the genocide of indigenous first peoples, to justify the existence of slavery, and to support anti-Semitism and ethnocentrism which lead to the Holocaust. Damn.

  • Scott Rose

    The new policy is bullshit. It smears gay students’ fundamental personal identity as a “contentious” “issue.” And, it requires teachers to allow religious gay bashers to gay bash on the basis of religion. It is certain to intimidate any teacher who might have thought to teach the books of James Baldwin, for example, out of doing so. And, read the wording of it; a gay teacher would have passively to listen to a student quote Romans from the Bible, saying that homosexuals are “worthy to death,” could not attempt to persuade that gay bashing student away from that idea, and also would be responsible for “affirming the dignity and self-worth” of the religious gay basher who just said that homosexuals are worthy to death. The SPLC said it would rather have seen the policy repealed than replaced. That raises the question of why the SPLC didn’t just go ahead with the law suit. Because the policy by implication says that gay students by the mere fact of being gay are “contentious issues,” and because it says that religiously-motivated anti-gay bigotry has to be treated as equally valid as the LGBTers’ rights to a safe learning environment, the school district actually is promoting religion in the schools, including the notion that anti-gay religious bigotry is acceptable.

  • Scott Rose

    You should note that the school has a separate anti-bullying policy that does in fact once name “sexual orientation” as a protected minority. However, this new “Respectful Learning Environment” policy is in itself inherently anti-gay, because it places religiously-justified anti-gay bigotry on a level equal with that of the psychological safety of LGBT students. At any time anywhere in that school district, with this ridiculous new policy, a student may say to a gay student “You are an abomination” and there will be no recourse against them under this policy, because of what people believe “God” says in the Bible about homosexuals being an “abomination.” We should not forget that the KKK have religious justifications through which they believe Christian whites are superior to all others and should have and maintain power over all others.

  • macmantoo

    It’s very simple, some thing happens then suit the s–t out of the school. After enough suits they’ll get the idea. Or make a federal case out of it. It’s tough especially when you live in a bigoted district represented by a bigot.

  • cwm

    In Miramonte they’re dismissing an entire school’s slate of teachers in response to sex abuse allegations against two of them, bowing to the demands of a tiny minority of protesting parents.

    But in Anoka-Hennepin, at least nine kids have committed suicide after being bullied for being LGBT (or perceived as such). And the only response is a minor policy change.

    As if we didn’t already know how little queer kids’ lives are valued.

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