What would you do in your community if 7 students committed suicide in less than two years?
In Anoka-Hennepin, MN the school district instituted a "neutrality policy", which means that teachers and staff cannot talk about GLBT issues in school. In other words, if a kid is being treated badly because they are perceived to be GLBT, teachers cannot tell that child that it is okay to be who they are.
The Justice Department and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights have decided to investigate just what is going on there: peer-on peer harassment based on not conforming to gender stereotypes.
I believe that the climate that they have in the school, the way that kids are allowed to treat other kids - they say 'fag' all the time.
If you're even questioning who you are and you're not seeing anybody who's like you, you don't see anything positive about who you are, then you start wondering, "What's wrong with me?"
--Tammy Aaberg, whose son Justin killed himself after being tormented by being called gay
School officials have defended the policy, saying that "such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches and community organizations".
Superintendent Dennis Carlson says there was no evidence that any of the suicides was connected to anti-gay bullying or harassment.
Those who choose not to look are always conveniently blind.
Earlier this year a teenage lesbian couple won the right to walk together at a high school procession in the district after two human rights groups sued education officials on their behalf.
And now the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Faegre & Benson, LLP (a local firm which represented the lesbian couple mentioned above) have filed suit in federal court on behalf of five students.
According to the students, they “faced severe anti-LGBT bullying and harassment while attending school in that district.” The suit also charges that the “district’s gag policy perpetuated the harassment suffered by those students and others.” The suit was filed in the US District Court for the District of Minnesota because the school district has not addressed either the bullying or their discriminatory policy.
But…but…but…Mr. Carlson assured us there was no evidence of that! Could it be that nobody looked for any?
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.
--Sam Wolfe, SPLC attorney
There is something seriously wrong in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, and district officials know it. In school after school, kids who are perceived as gay are harassed mercilessly until they drop out, melt down, or lash back. This epidemic of harassment—unlike anything we’ve seen in neighboring districts—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.
--Kate Kendell, NCLR Executive Director
According to the lawsuit, LGBT students and those who were perceived as being LGBT were the subject of anti-LGBT slurs on a daily basis, and “were physically threatened or attacked by peers.” Many of the abuses occurred in front of the teachers or were reported to school officials, school personnel pretty much ignored them.
The NCLR says the lawsuit includes the following incidents:
One student faced daily verbal and physical harassment at school after classmates discovered that she is a lesbian. She reported the harassment to school officials numerous times, but the only response was an occasional verbal reprimand to the harassers. The student eventually dropped out of school and attempted suicide.
Another student reported chronic anti-LGBT harassment to school authorities for more than two years, only to have school officials suggest that he leave the school because they could not protect him.
A fourth student was picked on relentlessly because he likes to wear colorful clothes and sing songs by female artists. His school’s response was not to address the harassment, but to treat him as the problem. The school prevented him from wearing “girly” clothing and made him miss class time to walk through the hallways separate from the other students, escorted by a staff member.
The lawsuit asserts that the district’s gag policy and its failure to protect these students from harassment violated these students’ rights under the United States Constitution, Title IX, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.