Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District Revises “Anti-Gay” Bullying Policy Amid Slew of Teen Suicides
[caption id="attachment_1127" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane"][/caption] On the heels of the jury selection for the Tyler Clementi trial this week, one school district in suburban Minnesota has come under national scrutiny because of its policy on LGBT students and its connection to bullying in their schools. The Anoka-Hennepin school district, located just to the north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, has come under extreme fire over the past several months due to a policy in their schools that called for teacher “neutrality” when discussing issues of sexual orientation. The so-called Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy (SOCP) was designed by the district in order to address conservative families’ concerns that sexual orientation would be “taught” in schools. These families, who believe that being gay or transgendered is a choice, wanted the discussion of this lifestyle to remain in the home. The district, which, not surprisingly, is represented by Michele Bachmann in the U.S. House of Representatives, hoped that the SOCP would give the reassurance conservative parents needed while still protecting LGBT students from bullying. However, critics immediately attacked the policy as doing anything but and claimed that it “muzzled” teachers who would otherwise be able to intervene in sexual orientation-themed bullying. This culminated with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights suing the district on the behalf of six students who claimed they were discriminated against due to real or perceived sexual orientation. Rolling Stone Steps in… Earlier this month, the national media started screaming at Anoka-Hennepin via an expose in Rolling Stone. The article revealed that over the course of two years (2009-2011) nine students within the district had committed suicide and that four of them were gay or perceived as gay. RS reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely spoke to several of the main players in the Anoka-Hennepin district, including gay teens, the parents of those who committed suicide, and the leaders of the conservative parent movement. Though the district personally contacted the media in order to refute the story, all this still led to a swift response at Monday night’s school board meeting, which retracted the policy and replaced it with the Respectful Learning Environment Policy. The new policy, which was still in debate at the time of Erdley’s writing, passed as a means to quell the national outcry at Anoka-Hennepin as well as to help settle the pending lawsuit. The new policy, as reported by the Associated Press 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. However, there is one gaping hole in this policy. Nowhere does it specifically address sexual orientation. Instead it “covers” LGBT students and people’s beliefs and perceptions about them under the “political, religious, social matters, or economic issues.” Spotlight Not Dimming Despite their efforts to quickly address the national media attention on their district, many people are still questioning the utility of the Respectful Learning Environment Policy because of the lack of specificity in the area of sexual orientation. Even so, most people point to the debate over that policy and its predecessor, the SOCP, as the real fuel for change in Minnesota and America at large. The hope is that having this discussion will help to turn the tide. Yet as the Clementi trial once again points the national spotlight onto LGBT issues, especially as it pertains to bullying, we are all left to question the efficacy of “rules” about discussions lifestyle – whether one believes it’s a choice or not – and how they contribute to or detract from the protection of our children. Where is the line between perceived “morality” and safety and education for all?