Thursday, July 21, 2011

Minnesota Students Sue Over School Districts Neutrality Policy On Sexual Orientation

The Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minneapolis - the largest school district in Minnesota - is being taken to Federal Court by five of its gay and lesbian students over its policy regarding the teaching and discussion of sexual orientation in the classroom. Currently, the districts policy, as revised in 2009, states,
"Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations.   Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions.  If and when staff address sexual orientation, it is important that staff do so in a respectful manner that is age-appropriate, factual, and pertinent to the relevant curriculum." 
The five plaintiffs in the suit - a mixture of current and former students of the District -  filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota with the assistance of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Minneapolis based law firm Faegre & Benson. The suit alleges that the district's current policy on neutrality regarding sexual orientation amounts to nothing less than a "gag rule", and effectively constrains teachers from dealing with the harassment and bullying of the district's LGBT students.  According to Kate Kendall, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the district's policy amounts to an "epidemic" which is "plainly fueled by the district’s shameful and illegal policy singling out LGBT people and LGBT people alone for total exclusion from acknowledgement within the classroom."

The Anoka-Hennepin district continues to assert that it has done nothing wrong, and that its policy regarding teacher neutrality in discussions of sexual orientation does not violate any non-discrimination laws or constrain teachers from dealing with harassment and bullyingSuperintendent Dennis Carlsonas quoted by Minnesota Public Radio, denies any validity of the suits allegations saying that the school district addresses issues of bullying and harassment if such issues come to their attention. He stated,   
"If there's something they know that we don't know, we'd like to know what it is...and as soon as we know it, we'll take appropriate action."
But Sam Wolfe, an attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center, disagrees. He asserts that the district knows full well the harm that the current neutrality policy has on LGBT students,
"We are disappointed that the district fails to see the serious harm this policy is causing its students...School and district officials who are entrusted with the safety and education of all students continue to ignore, minimize, dismiss, and even blame victims for the abusive behavior of other students."
Recall that over the past two years in the Anoka-Hennepin school district alone, there have been seven student suicides, one of which was the suicide of 15-year old Justin Aaberg. In at least four of those cases, sexual orientation (or perceived sexual orientation) was an issue, with family and friends of two of the four, claiming that the children were the victims of bullying. Additionally, as CNN reported today, the Department of Justice and the Department of Educations Office of Civil Rights are looking into the district after being informed of its "hostile environment toward gay and lesbian students".

The fight over whether teachers should be neutral in discussions of sexual orientation in the classroom is not a new one, with the original Anoka-Hennepin policy dating all the way back to 1995. As of today, ten states (Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah) have "neutrality" laws similar to the policy of Anoka-Hennepin. The issue has also be garnering national attention with the "Don't Say Gay" bill currently under legislative discussion in Tennessee as well as the FAIR Act, recently signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown.

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