A Minnesota school district that has been caught in an emotional debate about how it treats gay students after a teenager's suicide earlier this year tweaked several policies Monday night to clarify that the harassment or bullying of gay students won't be tolerated.
The board of the Anoka-Hennepin School District changed the anti-bullying and harassment policies to clearly list the protected classes, including race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, disability, age, poverty and sexual orientation. The measure passed unanimously.
Those classes were already covered by district policies. But district officials decided those policies weren't as clear as they could be because finding the list required the reader to look into another document, the "Equal Educational Opportunity Policy."
The district drew attention after Justin Aaberg, 15, of Andover, Minn., hanged himself in his room in July. His friends told his mother he had been a frequent victim of anti-gay bullying.
Five other district students have also killed themselves since last year, and gay-rights advocates say anti-gay bullying may have played a role in two of those cases as well. With 40,000 students, the district is the largest in the state.
It has found itself caught between gay-rights supporters, who insist that any anti-bullying program must include specific policies aimed at protecting gay youth, and religious conservatives who call that unnecessary and biased toward homosexuality.
“Can we all be a little more like Justin, and accept everyone for who they are and not for who you want them to be?”Tammy Aaberg
The district has told its staff to remain neutral when discussing matters of sexual orientation, while also ordering employees to step in if they learn of any harassment or bullying.
Justin's mother, Tammy Aaberg, said the board didn't go far enough with the changes it made Monday. She said she wants the district's neutrality policy changed as well.
"I want to know, who is it going to hurt if you change the policies to include equality for everybody?" she said during a time set aside for public comment. "Can we all be a little more like Justin, and accept everyone for who they are and not for who you want them to be?"
About 40 people attended the meeting Monday evening. No one spoke against the policy changes.
Julie Blaha, president of the district's teachers union, said despite some optional training, teachers are still confused about the district's policies toward gay and lesbian students.
"An effective, clear staff development program for all our staff will help clear up the confusion and give teachers the tools to not only respond to bullying, but create a positive school climate to help prevent bullying in the first place," she told the board.
The Anoka-Hennepin district is not alone in wrestling with the issue. Several teen suicides around the country linked to anti-gay harassment have prompted school officials to re-examine their policies on bullying.
The most high-profile case involved Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, 18, who jumped off the George Washington bridge after his roommate recorded him with another male student, then broadcast the video online.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)