A new strategy by the Anoka-Hennepin School District to crack down on student bullying appears to be making some headway, but it's also stirring a degree of uncertainty in the ranks of teachers.

The district, the state's largest, has been through a year of turbulence over its handling of issues related to gay and lesbian students, and is the subject of a lawsuit and a federal investigation involving allegations of bullying based on sexual orientation.

The new strategy, dubbed "Know NO! Know," takes aim at bullying against all students, administrators say, although they note that they're also taking into account complaints from gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students.

"What we've found is that there is a specific group now feeling as though it's not being addressed," Associate Superintendent Jinger Gustafson said. "... But our efforts go back to keeping all kids safe."

"Know NO! Know" requires staff to be visible in the halls and other places where students congregate and to immediately call out bullying, condemn the acts and report the perpetrators.

"What it really was, was having a safe adult around every corner ... creating that culture of safety, that there are eyes everywhere," Gustafson said.

In August, the district conducted training sessions for all teachers and other staff, as it does before the start of each school year.

This year, there was a focus on two district policies: its no-tolerance anti-bullying measure and its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, also known as the "neutrality policy," which has been a lightning rod of controversy. A lawsuit filed on behalf of six current and former students seeks its repeal, saying the policy does not adequately protect students from harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, petitions have been filed by groups both opposing and supporting the policy. Supporters say that it properly places discussion of sexual orientation issues into parents' hands and that opponents are pushing a political agenda.

The August training sought to clarify the curriculum policy, which says, in part, that staff members may discuss GLBT issues but must "remain neutral" on them. Along with other information, the sessions posed scenarios and explained how the policy would apply -- something that teachers have wrestled with and that critics say has led to a hands-off response when bullying occurs.

The district also stressed that the anti-bullying policy always trumps the neutrality policy.

Progress, concerns

Four weeks into the school year, interviews with teachers, students and others show the anti-bullying training may be having some effect, but also highlight the thicket the district still is trying to navigate -- particularly with the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy.

Anoka High School English teacher Jon Plotz is a critic of the neutrality policy but said he appreciates the almost chain-of-command directive in "Know No! Know."

"Even that is more specific than it has been previously," he said. "Giving someone a specific action makes them more likely to do something."

Becky Marshall, a science teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts and mentor for the school's Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), said teachers still are afraid of repercussions from parents and the district if they say the wrong thing. She and others said the curriculum policy causes a moment of doubt when they interact with kids on GLBT issues: "We know how to deal with bullying; we don't know how to deal with being neutral. There's a fear there, and it would be so much better if ... there was that confidence to stand up and say, I support these students, no matter what."

GSA meeting

At a meeting Thursday of Champlin Park High School's GSA, students gave mixed early reviews to the district's new anti-bullying efforts.

Senior Lucas Rorvick was one who noted that the morning announcement of that day's GSA meeting elicited derisive laughter in class.

"It was shocking that people would openly mock something like that," he said afterward. Still, he said he believes that overall, antigay slurs have decreased this year, especially among older students, who have had a chance to mature and worry less about what other people are doing.

Austin Maetzig, a freshman at Champlin Park, said in a phone interview that classmates have yelled slurs at him in the hallways and outside the school building. "People in class say, 'That's so gay,' and teachers don't even care," he said. "They just go on with class. I'm just like, 'Are you not going to say something?' I don't take offense to it, but I don't think it's right just to have it be said or call someone that who isn't, or who doesn't want to tell people they are."

Plotz and others also said that reacting to bullying is treating a symptom of a bigger problem: the marginalization of GLBT kids.

Question about a question

One source of stress for some staff members was a follow-up assessment to the August training that needed to be completed by Friday. They had to answer six questions dealing with the training and score 100 percent. Several staff members said they were tripped up by a true/false statement that said: "One of the goals of the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy is to ensure all of our students feel safe and respected in our classrooms and/or while participating in school activities."

An answer of "false" was marked incorrect.

Jefferson Fietek, drama teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts, objected to the question: "I'm confused why an opinion question is in there, and an opinion question that must be answered a certain way to pass the exam."

Local teachers union president Julie Blaha said several people have contacted her, saying they can't answer "true," because they believe the curriculum policy is rooted in politics or because they don't believe the policy works.

The union has set up a meeting this week to discuss the question, including a possible rewording.

Gustafson has said the assessment was meant to gauge who had completed the training, and she said staff will not face discipline if they don't answer that question "true."

Both Gustafson and Blaha also said the questions that arise help to enhance the discussions about the district's goal of keeping all kids safe.

Looking ahead

The district has collected staff members' thoughts about the challenges in enforcing its policies, and about practices and the tools that would make their work more effective. The district will use that information to shape its future steps, which Gustafson promised will include input from students and the community.

Meanwhile, the district and the groups that filed the lawsuit have been in mediation talks that they described last month as productive. The federal investigation also is ongoing.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409