School district's 'neutrality' policy on LGBT issues is anything but

Cohen, Kendell
Richard Cohen, left, is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Kate Kendell, right, is executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Getty Images/submitted photo

Imagine sitting across a kitchen table from a mother as she tearfully recounts the loss of her 13-year-old daughter to suicide. She describes how school district officials denied any link between school bullying and any of the multiple recent suicides in the district. But she learns from her daughter's friends that the teenager endured constant harassment at school. For her daughter, school was a place of torment.

During our investigation of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have heard numerous other heartbreaking stories from parents who've learned that their children have been bullied relentlessly at school.

We've heard students as young as 12 describe a daily ordeal of verbal and physical harassment. And we've seen the frustration on the faces of teachers as they describe a district policy that makes it impossible for them to prevent or respond effectively to bullying.

A toxic environment reigns in many Anoka-Hennepin schools. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students and those perceived as LGBT are primary targets of rampant harassment.

And it's happening because students who bully others know they can get away with it.

At the heart of the crisis is an ill-conceived gag policy. Even the president of the local teacher's union doesn't get it. "If you ask five different teachers about how this policy works, you get five different answers," Julie Blaha told Minnesota Public Radio. Others have described conversations with several school board members where each one offered a different interpretation.

Blaha also told MPR that, as a middle school teacher, she once hesitated before responding to a student's anti-gay slur in class because she wasn't sure if administrators would support her actions.

In other district classes, students perceived as LGBT have been openly derided with comments describing gay people as "disgusting," for example, while teachers listened without intervening or offering any support.

School administrators told one student who had suffered years of harassment that he should transfer to another school because they could not ensure his safety.

Although the district has an anti-bullying policy, it will never truly address school bullying as long as it maintains a gag policy that basically tells teachers to keep quiet about anything relating to LGBT students.

And the silence does even more damage than that. Students need to be prepared to understand and communicate with all their peers, including those who are different from themselves. They need to understand the real world. But in this district, a teacher abruptly ended a student's classroom presentation when the student used an example involving a same-sex couple.

The district recently instructed that teaching about LGBT persecution in Nazi Germany is not permissible because "this fact is not a part of the District-adopted curriculum." Whole areas of history, politics and current events have been erased from the classroom because the gag policy has kept anything related to LGBT individuals out of the curriculum.

The very existence of the gag policy is an affront to the dignity of LGBT students and teachers. Its existence leaves LGBT students feeling isolated and stigmatized — pariahs not fit to be mentioned in the classroom. Because it applies only to LGBT issues, the policy sends a message to the school community that LGBT students are less than other students, that there is something inherently shameful about their very identity. There is not.

The superintendent claims this gag policy is an appropriate response, similar to the district's neutrality policy for religious activities. It's not.

Truly neutral policy doesn't play favorites. Just as a neutrality policy on religion holds all religions as equally valid and equally entitled to respect, a true neutrality policy on sexual orientation would hold that all sexual orientations are equally legitimate. But this gag policy holds that homosexuality is so illegitimate that it cannot even be mentioned. The policy imposes no similar limits on the discussion of heterosexuality.

As Elie Wiesel said, "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

Our young people deserve safe schools that are conducive to learning. We are prepared to file legal action to protect these students if necessary. But it shouldn't have to come to that. We urge the district to live up to its responsibility to all of its students, and to take the steps needed to remedy its pervasive atmosphere of anti-LGBT harassment. The first critical step is to repeal the gag policy.

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Richard Cohen is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Kate Kendell is executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

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