Anoka-Hennepin school board members listened politely Monday night to heart-rending stories about gay and lesbian students. A professional counselor described the lifelong emotional pain some suffer after being bullied and ridiculed in school.
Board members also took emotional testimony from a graduate who had seriously considered suicide in high school. A constant barrage of antigay slurs made him feel worthless, hated and invisible -- and no adults stepped in to stop it, he said.
During previous meetings, school officials had heard from the grieving mother of a 15-year-old son who killed himself earlier this year after being harassed for being gay.
Yet listening is not enough, and neither are some of the steps the district has taken to combat bullying. Anoka-Hennepin has had five student suicides in the past year -- four of them linked to antigay harassment. Two other young people with connections to the district also took their own lives. Those tragedies show that more work must be done to improve the school climate for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
Prior to the board meeting, about 30 GLBT advocates, including a number of clergy members, said they want to work with district officials to revise and strengthen the antiharassment and violence policies. The Anoka-Hennepin Gay Equity Team (GET) is asking the district to include language that specifically protects gay students and provides specialized staff training. Those are reasonable ways to create a safer environment for all kids.
Advocates also want officials to eliminate the district's curriculum neutrality policy. For nearly 15 years (up to 2009) the school curriculum policy stated that "homosexuality will not be discussed as a normal or valid lifestyle.'' The revised policy now says that "staff must remain neutral on issues of sexual orientation in the course of their professional duties.''
Trouble is, those duties can involve everything from instruction to intervening in fights to helping kids through grief. So as GET points out, school staff members don't have clear guidance on what to do when dealing with gay students in conflict or distress.
With about 40,000 students, Anoka-Hennepin is the state's largest school district. It was in the news last year for a related issue when two teachers were accused of harassing student Alex Merritt three years ago for his "perceived sexual orientation.''
Both were disciplined, but not fired, and are currently on unpaid leave. The district settled with the family for $25,000, though it denied any violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. A state Department of Human Rights investigation disagreed, concluding that there was probable cause that the harassment occurred.
Against that teachers-as-perpetrators backdrop, it's understandable that students might fear turning to a staff person when they are being bullied. And when word gets around that some teachers have been reprimanded or silenced for trying to help GLBT kids, students can become even more isolated and afraid. An atmosphere like that can encourage even more harassment and violence.
That's why the Anoka-Hennepin board must make changes. Though the district has done some training and has a general antibullying policy, it can do more. School leaders could, for example, follow the lead of many other metro-area school districts, including Minneapolis, that have clearer, stronger antiharassment rules. National and local studies have shown that those types of policies reduce bullying and help all children feel safer.
The board's hesitancy is similar to other foot-dragging in this country about correcting unfairness directed at gays. Witness court rulings across America that make gay marriage legal in some states and not in others, or the recent congressional failure to drive a nail in the coffin of the military's "don't ask, don't tell'' policy.
When it comes to gay and lesbian issues, there is too much listening and not enough action. Bigotry should not be tolerated in any form.