The Anoka-Hennepin School District is taking a new look at how it deals with bullying.
A task force, which holds its first meeting tonight, will spend several months evaluating the district's culture around bullying, to possibly recommend changes in policy.
It is one required piece of a settlement the district entered into eight months ago. Anoka-Hennepin's neutrality policy prompted lawsuits from several students who were bullied because they are gay or perceived to be gay.
Even as Anoka-Hennepin moves beyond that conflict, past actions by one task force member has some concerned about the process.
Twenty-six people are a part of the district's task force on bullying. They include teachers, staff, administration, community members and a handful of students.
Tom Heidemann, who chairs the Anoka-Hennepin school board, pieced together the task force from more than 70 applicants.
"We'll bring together community members and experts to just review how things are going in Anoka-Hennepin and advise the board on how to make things better," Heidemann said.
Anoka-Hennepin's neutrality policy required teachers remain neutral when the subject of sexual orientation came up in the classroom. The policy faced intense criticism after six students committed suicide in a span of less than two years. Friends and family of the students say were bullied because of their sexual orientation.
Then, six students sued the district, claiming the policy didn't protect them from bullying.
The settlement included payments to the students who sued, a requirement that the district better monitor bullying and new anti-bullying protocols be developed with the Department of Justice.
It also required the district to include gay students in assessment and development of the district's evolving bullying policies.
Bullying task force member Alyssa Beddoe, 17, is a senior at Andover High School.
As a freshman, Beddoe told fellow students she was gay. She lost friends and faced hurtful comments from other students.
"I've dealt with a lot of people who just (say) 'You need to go die,'" Beddoe said. "I've dealt with the people who've tried to change me to be straight, show me I'm straight, or the people that just don't want me on the earth anymore because I'm gay."
Beddoe said things have gotten better in the past couple of years because of the attention paid to bullying, but she still sees need for improvement.
"We have a long way to go, it's just baby steps. It's still getting started so it's better than nothing."
As a bullying task-force member, Beddoe said she'll push to get students more involved in anti-bullying efforts, since they are the first to see bullying, before teachers even know it's happening.
Tammy Aaberg's 15-year old son, Justin, committed suicide in 2010. He also was bullied because he was gay, she said.
Aaberg hopes the task force finds ways to protect kids like her son.
"I would like to make sure that they adopt better policies and better ways of handling bullying," she said.
Aaberg applied to be on the task force but was turned down. Now she's expressing concern about one member of the group, Bryan Lindquist.
Lindquist is part of a local group called the Parent Action League, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has declared a hate group, and intolerant toward gay people.
In spring testimony to the school board, Lindquist referred to homosexuality as a "sexual disorder." Those statements worry Aaberg.
"I go back and I look at articles and things that he said at board meetings ... that's what concerns me," Aaberg said. "I'm really worried of what is actually going to happen in this anti-bullying task force."
Lindquist declined to speak on tape for this story, but in an email said the task force should concern itself with "helping create a safe learning environment for all students," and not with him.
Heidemann says appointing Lindquist to the task force helped balance out the group.
"He brings a conservative-Christian point of view to the committee and also a commitment to making sure that there's no bullying and harassment of students in school for any reason," Heidemann said.
The Anoka-Hennepin bullying task force will meet monthly through the end of the school year. It's expected to report its finding and recommendations to the school board by June.
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