Dennis Carlson, Anoka-Hennepin schools superintendent

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"School staff were concerned that the [neutrality] policy would prevent them from providing support to a student who was coming out as GLBT or from intervening in bullying or harassment. The district is coming under scrutiny today because of its 16-year campaign to silence and marginalize GLBT students. ... It's a situation the district's own conduct and choices are responsible for.''

PHIL DURAN, legal director for Outfront Minnesota, a GLBT advocacy group

Editorial: Gutless 'neutrality' on GLBT issues

  • August 4, 2011 - 9:33 PM

The Anoka-Hennepin School District never seems to learn its lesson on the treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students.

Now the state's largest school district is facing a federal investigation into harassment complaints and a lawsuit alleging that it failed to protect kids from bullying and injury.

Within the past few years, some have linked in-school bullying to suicides within the district, although officials have disputed the connection. In 2009, the district paid a $25,000 settlement to the family of a student who said he was harassed by teachers who mistakenly thought he was gay.

Anoka-Hennepin officials maintain that district policies clearly state that staff must not tolerate bullying. They also say they are considering new staff training on sexual orientation.

For nearly 15 years, the district had a policy that "homosexuality will not be discussed as a normal or valid lifestyle.''

In 2009, the board revised the policy to say that "staff in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation.''

GLBT advocates say Anoka-Hennepin is the only local district to adopt a policy of neutrality. On the surface, requiring teachers to be neutral on controversial topics might seem reasonable.

After all, educators often are often instructed to do so on topics such as religion, politics and other lifestyle issues.

But in practice, Anoka-Hennepin's position has singled out gay students and has sent a strong signal that staff should stay on the sidelines. Too many current and former students say they didn't receive adequate protection, and too many teachers have said they have felt hamstrung.

Last month a lawsuit filed on behalf of five students claimed they were taunted with verbal slurs, stabbed with pencils and even urinated on by classmates.

Superintendent Dennis Carlson recently told a Star Tribune reporter that the size of his 38,000-student district makes it especially diverse.

"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."

What Carlson fails to see is that other districts that are more purple than red or blue are clear about their stands on GLBT issues. Edina, for example, has strong policies against harassment and bullying -- without a neutrality clause.

The suburban district reports low numbers of bullying incidents and credits an active Gay-Straight Alliance student group and an elementary school tolerance program. Studies have shown that those types of policies reduce bullying and help all children feel safer.

While polls show that Americans increasingly favor tolerance and equal rights for gays, Anoka-Hennepin is stuck in the past, hiding behind an ambiguous policy in the name of neutrality.

It's simply wrong not to do everything possible to prevent harassment or bullying of children who may strike some of their peers as different.

Hopefully the district can prevent a lengthy, expensive court battle by rewriting its policies and establishing diversity training that would bring meaningful progress on GLBT issues.

To do otherwise is to turn its back on a vulnerable group of students.

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