Minneapolis — In a sharply worded editorial, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune this week criticized the Anoka-Hennepin School District, calling the state’s largest schools district “gutless” for it’s neutrality policy on LGBT issues.
The Anoka-Hennepin School District never seems to learn its lesson on the treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students. Now the state’s largest school district is facing a federal investigation into harassment complaints and a lawsuit alleging that it failed to protect kids from bullying and injury.
The newspaper charged that officials of Anoka-Hennepin schools hide behind an “out-of-touch policy,” which states:
“Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions. If and when staff address sexual orientation, it is important that staff do so in a respectful manner that is age-appropriate, factual, and pertinent to the relevant curriculum.”
Recently, the U.S. Justice Department launched a joint task-force investigation with the U.S. Department of Education‘s Office of Civil Rights, looking into “allegations of harassment and discrimination in the Anoka-Hennepin School District based on sex, including peer-on-peer harassment based on not conforming to gender stereotypes.
“Our investigation is ongoing,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa. She declined to say what complaint or complaints had sparked the federal inquiry.
This investigation comes at a time in the suburban Minneapolis school district as the community is already engaged in a tense culture war over approaching the subject of homosexuality in the classroom.
Late last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), National Center for Lesbian Rights and the local Minneapolis law firm Faegre & Benson filed suit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District, claiming that staff members didn’t do enough for students bullied because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation.
The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of five current and former students, who say they’ve been peppered with demeaning slurs, stabbed with pencils, even urinated on by classmates. It seeks to end the district’s sexual orientation curriculum policy, which allows teachers to discuss sexual orientation issues but requires them to maintain neutrality.
Over the past two years, a total of nine teens in the Anoka-Hennepin district have committed suicide, and many more students have reportedly attempted to take their own lives.
According to the Star-Tribune:
“The Anoka-Hennepin School District, where we stand today, has refused to take a stand against harassment and bullying,” said Mary Bauer of the Alabama-based SPLC. “This policy sends a message to kids that who they are is not OK. Our plaintiffs have stood up and said ‘no more.'”
In addition to seeking to end the policy, commonly called the “neutrality policy,” the suit also asks for compensation for the students who say they were repeatedly bullied because they are or were perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT).
The newspaper’s editorial takes aim squarely at Anoka-Hennepin superintendent Dennis Carlson who was quoted as saying, “I do take a middle-of-the-road approach, and I don’t apologize for it. If I’m getting an equal amount of hate mail from the left and right, I feel like I’m on solid ground.”
The Star-Tribune disagrees:
What Carlson fails to see is that other districts that are more purple than red or blue are clear about their stands on GLBT issues. Edina, for example, has strong policies against harassment and bullying — without a neutrality clause.
While polls show that Americans increasingly favor tolerance and equal rights for gays, Anoka-Hennepin is stuck in the past, hiding behind an ambiguous policy in the name of neutrality. It’s simply wrong not to do everything possible to prevent harassment or bullying of children who may strike some of their peers as different.
Hopefully the district can prevent a lengthy, expensive court battle by rewriting its policies and establishing diversity training that would bring meaningful progress on GLBT issues. To do otherwise is to turn its back on a vulnerable group of students.