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Superintendent Dennis Carlson stood and ran his fingers over a map of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, pointing out factors and rattling off statistics that make the area both a bastion of conservative thought and a sphere for social activism.
Now, with a federal investigation and a high-profile lawsuit hanging over the district, it's also the latest epicenter in the national debate over bullying based on sexual orientation.
The spotlight isn't a surprise to Carlson, who recalls the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone telling him that politicos and cultural observers look to the disparate school district as a bellwether not just for the state, but the nation.
"That's why we've been chosen for this political battleground," Carlson said. "[But] it's not a battle we want to fight. That's not why we're here."
One flashpoint is the district's 10-sentence Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, which allows teachers to discuss sexual orientation issues but requires them to remain neutral. Two national civil rights groups sued the district this month on behalf of five current and former students, seeking removal of the policy, which they say doesn't do enough to prevent harassment.
Meanwhile, a parents group is seeking to keep the policy in place and accuses the lawsuit sponsors of using children as pawns.
The federal investigation, by the Justice and Education departments, began last November, after officials received reports of bullying based on sexual orientation in the district.
"There have been a lot of problems in the district," said Justin Anderson, a gay 2010 Blaine High School graduate.
"They've failed to address the problems, and now it's coming back to bite them."
Diverse and large
Anoka-Hennepin is the state's largest school district, with about 38,000 students, and it covers a wide swath of the north-metro area.
With families spilling over from the Twin Cities, ushering in big-city diversity and higher levels of poverty, Anoka-Hennepin has an urban feel in its southern panhandle, which includes parts of Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park.
As the map moves north and spreads outward, the landscape shifts from suburban to more rural, and diversity of all sorts -- religion, race and thought -- declines, said Lisa Waldner, a University of St. Thomas sociology professor.
"With the sheer size of [the district], it's a cross section of everything," said state Sen. Benjamin Kruse, R-Brooklyn Park. "It's extremely diverse and large, and we take pride in both of those things. You name it, and it's there."
Many urban districts wrestled with gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender (GLBT) issues a decade ago, Waldner said.
Now, the battle has come to the suburbs, where "there's less of a willingness to acknowledge that there is a problem," she said.
Year of scrutiny
The district's handling of GLBT issues has been under the microscope over the past year. Last fall, after a number of student suicides, GLBT advocates argued that some deaths stemmed from bullying because of real or perceived GLBT orientation.
Earlier this month, the school board was presented petitions seeking repeal of the sexual orientation policy. The lawsuit was filed July 21.
Amid the furor, Carlson has tried to remain neutral, unabashedly so.
"I do take a middle-of-the-road approach, and I don't apologize for it," he said. "If I'm getting an equal amount of hate mail from the left and right, I feel like I'm on solid ground."
He and the district have been pressed from different directions.
Phil Duran, legal director for OutFront Minnesota, a gay advocacy group, said the neutrality policy has backfired.
"The district assumed that 'If we stay neutral, maybe we'll keep everyone happy,'" he said. "In the end, they created a legal nightmare."
The Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights, which filed the joint lawsuit, labeled the district's guide as a "gag policy" intended to muzzle staff.
Tammy Aaberg calls it callous and cowardly. Her 15-year-old son, Justin, committed suicide last summer after she said he endured physical abuse and teasing for being openly gay. Staff at Anoka High School ignored the persistent bullying, she said.
The district is "standing so far behind this policy," said Aaberg, who noted that the students in the lawsuit reported serious bullying. "How are these kids supposed to get through school?"
Anoka-Hennepin officials said the policy allows staff to stop bullying based on sexual orientation and admonish the bullies on why it's wrong.
They also note that the district has an anti-bullying policy and bullying-prevention programs.
"Everyone agrees that our kids should not be bullied or harassed," Carlson said. "The idea that we've done nothing is ludicrous."
Seeking to keep policy
Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, alleged that the organizations suing the district have an agenda that has more to do with promoting homosexuality than stopping bullying.
"They're trying to blur the lines," he said. "It's pretty clear what they're advocating for."
To combat efforts to repeal the sexual orientation curriculum policy, the Parents Action League formed last fall, arguing that changes could "undermine the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children."
Chairwoman Laurie Thompson said the district's Gay Equity Team and the lawsuit sponsors are using children as "pawns for social change."
"We want the gender and sexuality of our children to develop naturally, without coercion or recruitment by homosexual activists who ignore the dangers of embracing a sexual identity at an early age," she said in an e-mail.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is pushing for change, attorney Sam Wolfe said, but not of that kind.
"It's a community in need of some reform," Wolfe said. "We've got a problem, but it's not irreversible."
Carlson, meanwhile, said he welcomes government intervention, from investigators and the courts, as the lawsuit proceeds.
"All we're trying to do is keep kids safe," he said while sitting in his office last week, the map laid out in front of him.
"I've divided the world into two segments, those who want to help me and those who don't."
Scott Wenzel, the lone Anoka-Hennepin school board member who opposes the so-called "neutrality policy," understands why his colleagues keep it. "It's a compromise position in a community that's divided," he said.
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491