Gay rights groups: Change Anoka-Hennepin policy or we won't rule out lawsuit

Dennis Carlson
In this Oct. 8, 2010 photo, Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendent Dennis Carlson stands in the hallway of Coon Rapids High School in Coon Rapids, Minn.
AP Photo/Dawn Villella

The Anoka-Hennepin school district said Wednesday it will keep its sexual orientation curriculum policy but is offering to work with civil rights organizations and U.S. Department of Justice officials to develop more employee training to support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

But two groups threatening to sue the district over its policy said they are still considering legal action, saying the promise of training isn't enough.

"The suggestion that training could be meaningful in changing the climate in the school district without repealing or modifying the policy is a non-starter," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center planned a news conference Thursday. In May, they asked the school district, Minnesota's largest, to change the policy, which says the topic of sexual orientation is not part of the regular curriculum and instructs teachers to remain neutral if the issue comes up in their classrooms.

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The Anoka-Hennepin district's announcement came on the same day CNN reported that the Justice Department and the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights was investigating a complaint concerning allegations of harassment and discrimination in the district.

In a statement to CNN, district officials said the complaint received by the feds concerned "harassment based on sex, including peer-on-peer harassment based on not conforming to gender stereotypes."

A Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed to MPR News that an investigation was under way, but she declined further comment.

School district spokesman Brett Johnson said officials were made aware of the complaint in November and last met with Justice Department officials in June to talk about everything from school procedures to teacher training.

"At this point it's a conversation," Johnson said. "We both have the same goals — keeping students safe, so it's about how can we work together on that."

Johnson said the district expects to have more meetings but so far Justice Department officials had not instructed the school district to take specific action.

Gay students in the district have complained for several years about facing discrimination in school. The added scrutiny over the district's sexual orientation curriculum policy has come in the wake of seven student suicides in the district in the past two years.

Parents and school officials have been at odds over how many of the students were gay and whether bullying played a role.

The school district announced its offer to improve training about a month after district officials began meeting with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. School district officials said in a news release that "support, not litigation, is the best path to aiding GLBT students."

Superintendent Dennis Carlson said in a written statement that officials planned to work with the civil rights groups, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education's Civil Rights Office, on training materials that could be shared with districts across the country.

"Rather than focusing on litigation we would prefer to invest in materials that would provide a positive outcome for students for years to come," said Carlson.

The district said in the release that the school board feels the sexual orientation curriculum policy is appropriate and will leave it in place.

District officials have rejected the advocacy groups' argument that the policy interferes with teachers' ability to protect gay students from being bullied.

Johnson said district officials have not received a formal response from either the Southern Poverty Law Center or National Center for Lesbian Rights on whether they are willing to collaborate on a new training program.

"We want to do something that could be applied to every school district in the country," he said.

But Kendell said the sexual orientation curriculum policy the district wants to keep has silenced students and teachers from discussing the issues, contributing to the hostile climate she said many gay students have endured.

"Unless the policy is reevaluated, there's no possible way that any offer of training is serious or meaningful," she said.