Minnesota School District Drops "Neutrality" Policy on Sexual Orientation

After a rash of teen suicides and complaints that it didn’t go far enough to prevent antigay bullying, Minnesota’s largest school district will make major changes in its policies to prevent the harassment and bullying of students who are gay, or perceived to be gay.

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board agreed last week to strengthen the district’s efforts to prevent gender-based harassment, settling two lawsuits filed last summer by six current or former students in the suburban Minnesota district as well as a separate federal civil rights investigation that began in November 2010.

The Justice and Education departments began their investigation after seven students – four of whom were gay or perceived to be gay — committed suicide.

Student plaintiffs E.R., left, and Brittany Geldert, right, smile at one another during a news conference Tuesday, March 6, 2012, in Minneapolis. The student plaintiffs in the federal gender and sexual-orientation harassment lawsuits against the Anoka-Hennepin school district held a press conference regarding the agreement to resolve the lawsuits. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, David Joles)

In the summer of 2011 six students and their families filed suit against the district. The suit, filed on their behalf by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center , claimed that that the district’s “neutrality” policy on gay issues amounted to a gag order against teachers and administrators from speaking out against harassment, even when students came to them about being victimized by anti-gay bullying and asking for help.

According to the Department of Justice report, “students in the district experienced and reported verbal and physical sex-based harassment because of their gender nonconformity.”  Not only were they regularly debased and called names, they endured repeated threats to their physical safety, and even death threats.

“LGBTQ students don’t feel safe at school,” Anoka Middle School for the Arts teacher Jefferson Fietek told Rolling Stone magazine  before the new policy was announced. “They’re made to feel ashamed of who they are. They’re bullied.”

Despite the gag order nature of the neutrality policy, members of the Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota (AHEM) took quick, significant action whenever they saw bullying, says Julie Blaha, AHEM president.

“Teachers have been leading the effort to make sure each of our students knows they are valuable part of our community,” she says, and they did so despite the efforts of religious conservative fringe groups to keep the neutrality policy in place, claiming that schools that address the issue of homosexuality promote an unhealthy and abnormal lifestyle.

Kyle Rooker, 15, was one of the students who filed suit. He said he was called names, shoved, and even urinated on because he liked to wear sparkly clothes and sing songs by Cher and Lady Gaga. He used to hide under the seat of his school bus to avoid the constant bullying.

“Harassment by or against students in schools is unacceptable, and not a ‘rite of passage’ to be endured by anyone,” Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general in the civil rights division, said in a statement issued last Monday.

Last month, the district replaced the neutrality policy with a requirement to affirm the dignity and self-worth of students regardless of race, sexual orientation, disabilities or other factors, which many believe set the stage for the new agreement.

The agreement requires that the district pay $270,000 to be divided among the aggrieved students and to implement steps to address anti-LGBT bullying. The steps include hiring experts in gender-based harassment to review district procedures and mental health experts to assist any victims of bullying. It also requires the district to improve the training of faculty, staff, and students on gender-based harassment. The departments of Justice and Education will monitor the district for the next five years to ensure compliance with the settlement’s terms.

AHEM President Julie Blaha told the school board that the new policy could usher in “a new chapter … in which everybody feels safe and welcome at school. A chapter where it is clear that every student, staff member and family is valued for who they are. And a chapter full of rigorous conversations between professionals about how to improve our school climate.”

Kyle Rooker also hopes it is the beginning of a new chapter. “I’m glad that kids coming up behind me won’t have to suffer the way I did,” he says.

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