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Five students from Minnesota's largest school district took their own lives in the past year, and four of those tragic suicides were linked to antigay harassment and bullying. Leaders of that same district -- Anoka-Hennepin -- paid a $25,000 settlement to a family who alleged that two teachers harassed their son because they believed he was gay.
As teen suicide and harassment incidents receive more public scrutiny here and around the nation, school communities are asking: What must educators do to address bullying based on sexual orientation? And should policies against harassment be general or identify various groups for protection?
To answer those questions, the Minnesota School Boards Association recently stepped up and offered needed guidance. The association wisely advised its members to adopt expanded bullying, harassment and violence policies to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students as groups meriting protection.
MSBA is also urging school officials to require staff members to step in more aggressively when they witness bullying. That's the right thing to do as well as the best course to take legally. The failure of educators to intervene has caused some parents to file lawsuits when their children were injured or harassed.
Historically, most Minnesota school district policies protected against harassment based on race, religion or sex. Antibullying policies often do not identify specific victim groups.
But the association's revised model policy is more detailed, offering clearer direction for school staff. In addition to prohibiting harassment or violence based on race, sex, color, creed or religion, the proposed policy includes "national origin, age, marital status, familial status, and status with regard to public assistance, sexual orientation or disability.''
The MSBA approach follows what some other states are trying to do. New Jersey legislators recently approved one of the nation's toughest antibullying laws. Discussed by lawmakers for the past year, the measure began receiving more attention when a Rutgers University freshman killed himself in September after his gay sexual encounter in his dorm room was broadcast online.
New Jersey's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights says that school staffers are supposed to pay attention to student relationships, and it requires most employees to be trained in how to identify and report bullying. It also calls for disciplining those who indulge or ignore student bullies. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has not yet said whether he will sign the bill.
Similarly, policies that are improved and more specific have been held up nationally and in Minnesota. Federal proposals to specifically protect GLBT students have not yet passed. And a bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature last year was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Unfortunately, some critics object to anti-gay-bullying efforts, suggesting that it encourages young people to approve of homosexuality. However, no matter what one's beliefs are about sexual orientation, no children deserve to be tormented, injured or driven to suicide. To reduce intimidation and violence, school employees must acknowledge why kids get harassed and understand what will and will not be tolerated.
School districts that don't already have stronger policies don't have to wait for the state or federal government to take that step. Individual school boards can and should adopt the MSBA policy to better protect their students.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.