The messages on posters lining the walls of Anoka-Hennepin schools are simple: Don't be a bully. If you're feeling bad, there's help for you.
The reminders are the most visible signs of a bigger effort by the state's largest school district to combat bullying, a problem that has thrust Anoka-Hennepin into a national spotlight, with a focus on the treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. Five months into the school year, interviews with nearly 60 high school students from across the district suggest the climate is slowly changing.
"I feel a lot more comfortable than I thought I ever would be," said Champlin Park ninth-grader Malinda Carisch, who said she has come out as a lesbian this year. "I was just so afraid of being put down."
On Monday, the school board will vote on a proposal to replace its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, a flashpoint in the district. Opponents say the policy requiring staff to be neutral on sexual orientation contributes to a hostile atmosphere for GLBT students; supporters say removing it could open the door to "homosexual activists" who seek to advance their own agenda. The proposed replacement, a Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy, has received a generally positive reaction.
On the ground, meanwhile, the intensified anti-bullying campaign has included several rounds of staff training, including efforts to clarify what teachers can and should do to respond to bullying. The district, which notes that the effort is aimed at protecting all students, also has beefed up its counseling staff and efforts to make sure students in crisis know help is available.
"Teachers are on stuff faster," said Kyle Payne, an Anoka High School senior and co-president of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance. "There have been a couple instances when they hear 'faggot' in a classroom, and they say, 'Hey, pick a different word' or 'Watch your language.' ... In former years, nothing would be done about it, but now teachers are trying to stop it."
Still, challenges remain. For example, a number of students spoke of the growing problem of cyberbullying, which cuts across groups, and the district's statistics on bullying of all types paint a complex picture. Last year, Anoka-Hennepin tracked only incidents when there was a known perpetrator and discipline, and by that count, there were 73 cases of direct and online bullying. This year, all cases have been tabulated, whether the perpetrator was known or not; so far, there have been 176 reports.
This is progress, said Jeff McGonigal, associate superintendent for high schools.
"Our staff has an extra antenna up for anything that could be bullying. It means our lenses are getting even clearer on what we're looking for."
Anoka-Hennepin, a district that includes 13 cities and 39,000 students, remains under a microscope. In addition to a lawsuit and a federal civil rights investigation into allegations of widespread bullying based on sexual orientation, the district has drawn attention from media nationwide, including the New York Times, CNN and most recently Rolling Stone magazine. The district issued a sharply worded response to the Rolling Stone article, "One Town's War on Gay Teens," saying it was "a grossly distorted portrayal" of the district, its schools and its communities.
Students interviewed this week were split over the magazine's treatment. Some said they hadn't heard much talk, but others reported that their friends and social networks had been buzzing since the article first appeared Friday.
Some said their schools and community had been unfairly portrayed. Some said the article didn't change how they feel about their schools but might have prompted them to react more assertively to bullying. Others noted that bullying still happens, so they were glad the article was spreading the word about its terrible impact and the high stakes of failing to respond to it. Members of Anoka High's Gay-Straight Alliance said they'd gotten supportive e-mails from across the country.
Of problems the district has faced in recent years, the most wrenching were a number of student suicides from late 2009 into 2011; some of the students had been bullied and some were identified as GLBT by friends and family or were perceived to be GLBT.
Students interviewed over the past two weeks said they had been shaken by the deaths, leading them to reassess their beliefs and behavior.
Several gave a nod to caring administrators and teachers. Others pointed to cultural changes or their own ability to alter their schools' climate by standing up to bullies. Many said their peers are less tolerant of expressions like "that's so gay" and other slurs.
Members of Anoka High School's Christian group, Broken, said they've seen students standing up for one another. Junior Jon Oliversen said there's a blessing in the difficulties.
"God's been working at the school and really bringing people together," he said.
More students are open about their sexual orientation than in the past, and fewer people will laugh at jokes made at their expense, said Champlin Park junior Jordan Baker.
"It's just making bullying harder because there's such a large community to look down on you," he said. But he added that efforts to reach out to GLBT students have made lots of kids safer. "The whole GLBT situation jump-started it and opened everyone's eyes. It's a combined effort to get organized and to get the student body to be more mature."
Alongside reports of progress, district students have expressed new concerns. Some conservative students wondered whether they'd risk punishment if they voiced their beliefs about homosexuality.
"If I told someone it was sinful, I would get in trouble," said Connor Trewin, a member of Broken. "I feel like people can talk a lot about Christians, but if I talked about someone who is gay I would get in trouble."
Taylor Rosenow, a senior in the Anoka GSA, said she hopes not, as long as people disagree respectfully and accept that different viewpoints can be valid.
At Blaine High School, students spoke about the general problem of cyberbullying, not confined to particular groups.
Students rarely are bullied face to face, several students said, but there's harassment via the Internet and there's nothing subtle about the messages some students receive.
"Cyberbullying on Facebook or Twitter is all about back-stabbing, bashing and spreading rumors," senior Tanner Schumacher said. "Cyberbullying is so easy. Instead of saying things face to face, you see messages on somebody's Facebook wall."
Blaine senior Danny Zerka said he doesn't understand why students become bullies, but he seems to know why bullying is done on Facebook. "Teachers don't know what's going on," he said. "Teachers aren't allowed to be Facebook friends with their students."
'By the time I graduate'
Austin Maetzig is midway through his freshman year at Champlin Park. A few months ago, he told the Star Tribune he was the target of constant verbal slurs in the hallways. That has changed as he has built a group of friends and found some teachers he trusts.
Kids always will bully one another, he and others said, and there always will be people who don't like kids like him because they're different.
"But I do see it getting better by the time I graduate," he said. "I hope that kids can be openly gay and not have to be afraid of what teachers and others have to think about it and say. I hope they can just be themselves."