Anoka-Hennepin policy aims to respect all families and students

Dennis Carlson
In this Oct. 8, 2010 photo, Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendent Dennis Carlson sits outside Coon Rapids High School in Coon Rapids, Minn. before the start of homecoming festivities.
AP Photo/Dawn Villella

Editor's note: The Anoka-Hennepin school district has been threatened with a lawsuit unless it changes a policy that requires staff to be neutral in dealing with sexual orientation. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights allege that the policy discourages staff from protecting LGBT students who are being harassed. We asked Dennis L. Carlson, superintendent of the district, to address the question.

By Dennis L. Carlson

Will a change in policy end bullying or harassment? Will it decrease student depression? Will it prevent students from self-destructive behavior or from committing suicide?

If it were that simple, we would make a policy change instantly. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers or quick fixes because human behavior, especially that of adolescents going through tremendous physical and emotional change, is complex, and it is complicated by the stresses many families in our communities are now feeling.

For the past year, the Anoka-Hennepin school district has been repeatedly asked by members of the public and special interest groups to eliminate our sexual orientation curriculum policy, which requires staff in the course of their professional duties to "remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation." They believe the policy has prevented staff from intervening when LGBT students are bullied or harassed and prevented staff from helping students who are struggling with their sexual orientation.

Equally as passionate are people with the opposite view. For nearly 20 years, individuals have asked the district to refrain from addressing sexual orientation in the classroom. They believe that discussion of sexual orientation issues is most appropriate within the home or church.

Therein lies the problem. The opinions of our community members vary widely; the opinions of our staff vary as well.

Public schools belong to the community; elected school boards serve at the will of the community. Providing policies and programs that reflect a divided community is difficult. It's easy to agree on teaching reading and writing, but not as easy on subjects that have long been considered sensitive or even taboo - religion, politics and, yes, human sexuality, and especially sexual orientation.

Wishing to respect all families and all students, the school board believes neutrality is the best option. The board adopted a religious activities policy years ago requiring "neutrality in matters of religion." The sexual orientation policy is similar. When speaking with students during class time, teachers do not advocate homosexuality, nor do they condemn it.

The religious activities policy does not mean teachers are prohibited from discussing religious symbolism in literature or the role of religion in history. It does not mean they are to stand idly by if a student is being bullied or harassed because of his or her religion.

Likewise, the sexual orientation curriculum policy does not mean teachers are prevented from discussing how an author's sexual orientation might affect his or her writings, or how the gay rights movement uses strategies developed by the civil rights movement. It does not mean they cannot intervene if a student is being bullied or harassed because of sexual orientation. Teachers must confront bullying and harassment, and are encouraged to offer help to LGBT students or to students who may be struggling with sexual orientation issues.

While not everyone agrees on the sexual orientation curriculum policy, they do agree on the need for schools to do the best job they can of protecting every single student.

We know that students cannot focus their attention on learning unless they feel safe. This is the reason we started an anti-bullying awareness campaign in 2003, prior to state legislation requiring districts to adopt anti-bullying policies. We have provided training for students and staff, emphasizing that students must report incidents of bullying or harassment and that staff must take immediate action when they receive a report or witness bullying or harassment. We have surveyed our students about bullying to learn how we can make our anti-bullying practices more effective. And, when a student committed suicide in the fall of 2009, we immediately redoubled our efforts to provide depression and suicide awareness training for students and staff.

What we are doing is working. More students are reporting bullying, and students are coming to us in record numbers with mental health concerns. We are connecting hundreds of them and their families with life-saving resources.

We are not naive enough to believe that our efforts alone will end bullying and harassment in our communities, or that we can protect every student from self-destructive thoughts or actions. Just as we know we cannot protect our students from the stress caused by unemployment, foreclosure, homelessness, family instability and other stressors many of our families face. But we do know that well-trained, caring professionals can make, and do make, a tremendous difference when young people come to them with concerns.

Students need to speak out when they are bullied or hurting or know someone who is. They need to tell an adult, and the adult needs to take action. That's where we can be most effective. We implore our lawmakers to provide the necessary resources, and ask our community members to partner with us in this most critical effort.


Dennis L. Carlson is superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin school district.