Civil Rights Groups to Sue Minnesota School District Over Neutrality Policy on Sexual Orientation

I am aware that I will probably stir things up a little bit with the following blog, but I feel that it is a timely issue that schools everywhere are dealing with, and it simply can’t be ignored.

You may have been following the news out of Minnesota’s largest school district, the Anoka-Hennepin district, which is under federal investigation by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights due to a complaint regarding “allegations of harassment and discrimination in the Anoka-Hennepin School District based on sex, including peer-on-peer harassment based on not conforming to gender stereotypes.”

Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a federal lawsuit last Thursday due to “pervasive anti-gay harassment” in this district’s schools.

What has lead to all of this? Well, in less than two years this district has seen seven students commit suicide. Four of these students were gay, perceived to be gay, or questioning their sexuality, and at least two of them were bullied because of their sexuality, according to parents and friends.

This school district adopted a sexual orientation curriculum policy in 2009, which has been dubbed the neutrality policy, which states that staff members are to “remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation” and that “such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches or community organizations.” In other words, this curriculum policy effectively bars teachers from taking a position on homosexuality or even addressing the issue with their students.

Jeri Schultz, a teacher in the system, told CNN, “There’s so much we can do and say to help create a more accepting and affirming and welcoming environment that would eliminate some of that bullying in the first place.”

While this is not a statewide policy, at least eight other states, including Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah, have limits on classroom instruction regarding homosexuality.

Those within the community who support this neutrality policy state that it is constitutional and is also consistent with the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which protects rights based on sexual orientation. But they feel that there is nothing in this law that should be understood to “authorize or permit the promotion of homosexuality or bisexuality in education institutions.”

Meanwhile, Anoka-Hennepin’s Superintendent Dennis Carlson publicly denied any connection between bullying and the suicides, saying in a voicemail to the staff, “Based on all of the information we’ve been able to gather, none of the suicides were connected to bullying or harassment.” And he defended the district’s neutrality policy to CNN saying, “It’s a diverse community, and what I try to do as superintendent is walk down the middle of the road.”

But some would question if the issue of students’ sexual orientation or their perceived orientation and students’ homophobia is something teachers can remain neutral on while, at the same time, creating a safe environment for all students.

Educator, bullying expert, and author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, Rosalind Wiseman said, “The problem with neutrality is that it doesn’t look neutral to the target or the bully. It looks like you are siding with the bully. And so, if you can’t name, on top of that, the behavior that’s happening because you have to take a neutral stand, then what it looks like to the child and to everybody around is that that homosexuality or that gossiping is so ashaming and so, you know you can’t talk about it, that the child will never come forward. So if the teachers are muzzled or there is a perception that the teachers are muzzled, then our children are never going to come forward.”

Rosalind also spoke on behalf of teachers when she said, “There is the belief that somehow if we give the teachers the opportunity to reach out to students and say, ‘You are okay, at base whoever you are,’ that that will then go from that to jumping into gay marriage. And that really, to me, is about why don’t we have faith in the people in that community to do right by their kids?”

Meanwhile, when Candi Cushman, education analyst for CitizenLink the policy arm for Focus on the Family and a staunch supporter of this neutrality policy, was asked by CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta if she objected to telling kids that there is nothing wrong with being gay in order to foster an atmosphere of safety in the classroom, she sidestepped the question with more talk about the right of parents to decide how or when these issues would be addressed. Which tells me that she would definitely object to teachers sending this message to gay or lesbian students.

Okay, I gave you a little taste of both sides of this hot debate out of Minnesota. But since it is such a controversial subject, I am going to end this blog here, and follow up tomorrow with more on this debate, including my own opinion (and believe me I have a strong one on this topic).

But first, we would love to hear your opinions on this school district’s neutrality policy. Do you agree that all conversation regarding children’s sexual orientation should take place at home, or are you in favor of teachers being given the freedom to address these issues as they occur, openly and honestly, in a classroom in order to foster a greater sense of acceptance?

Tell us how you feel!

2 thoughts on “Civil Rights Groups to Sue Minnesota School District Over Neutrality Policy on Sexual Orientation

  1. Craig Pederson

    I am a HS teacher in NYC. Our school has a number of gay and lesbian students who are relatively comfortable “out”. This is due in large part from the support of our teachers and administration. The more information that kids have on the nature of gender identification the more tolerant the school community. What is happening in my home state of Minnesota is immoral and bigoted and has no place in education.

  2. admin Post author

    Craig, I totally agree with you. This neutrality policy is nothing short of homophobic bigotry, and the negative impact it is having on the children in this school district is quite obvious.

    I can’t imagine teaching in a school where I am basically told that I cannot be honest and upfront with my students. I can be honest with students about differences in sexual orientation without promoting any agenda whatsoever, and clearly the teachers of Anoka-Hennepin would rather do so then be silent.

    People like Candi Cushman or anyone affiliated with groups like Focus on the Family need to spend some time in schools to see what it’s like for children who are gay, lesbian, or perceived as such. Shoot, even kids who aren’t considered gay are called names like gay, fag, and homo. To pretend that these kids are somehow going to grow out of it if you don’t talk about it or that they aren’t going to continue to be harassed for their differences is simply burying your head in the sand.

    To tell teachers that they can’t address these issues and make these kids feel more accepted in school is nothing short of criminal, especially with the rash of recent teen suicides, many of those from this very district. If I can’t talk about the real issue, I send the clear message that I am uncomfortable with it myself. How can I emphasize that these students are as acceptable and worthy of respect as anyone else in my classroom if I can’t show other students that I accept their differences and respect them, differences and all?

    I can only hope that Superintendent Dennis Carlson gets enough flak over his neutrality policy that he revokes it, allowing his teachers to do what they must do to insure the safety and emotional well-being of LGBT students in his district.

    I am glad to hear that your school is more accepting of gay and lesbian students. Clearly you see for yourself the difference it makes to these kids when they have the support they need. Rather than bury our heads in the sand, let’s acknowledge that we have LGBT students in our schools and let’s work to make that okay.
    @Craig Pederson

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