Tag Archives: Candi Cushman

Can Teachers Remain Neutral Over LGBT Bullying?

As promised, here is my second blog regarding the lawsuits filed against Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District due to their “pervasive anti-gay harassment,” according to the two advocacy groups who filed the suit, and the debate surrounding this district’s neutrality policy when it comes to LGBT students. (I would suggest that you read yesterday’s blog in order to better understand the major issues in this case.)

The Anoka-Hennepin School District has seen seven teen suicides in less than two years, which has some in the community questioning the district’s neutrality policy which basically says that teachers are not to express opinions regarding their students’ sexual orientation, but instead are to remain neutral on this subject. According to this policy, any discussions of this nature are to be left to parents to deal with at home.

So the debate rages over the ability of teachers to effectively deal with bullying of gay or lesbian students, or those who are perceived to be gay or lesbians if they have been basically “muzzled” by this policy. Adding to the debate, is the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which is legislation making its way through Congress. Its goal is to deal with the bullying of LGBT or perceived gay or lesbian students. It states the following reasons for needing to pass this act:

“Bullying and harassment of students who are, or are perceived to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is widespread.  While current federal law provides important support to promote school safety, it does not comprehensively and expressly focus on issues of bullying or harassment, and in no way addresses the unique challenges faced by LGBT youth.  Studies have shown that bullying and harassment of LGBT youth in schools contributes to high rates of absenteeism, dropout, adverse health consequences and academic underachievement.  When left unchecked, such bullying and harassment can lead to, and has led to, dangerous situations for young people.”

This act, which would require the instituting of stricter codes of conduct regarding this kind of harassment, has both sides of this issue pretty stirred up.

Anderson Cooper of CNN interviewed Candi Cushman, who represents the conservative group Focus on the Family. This conservative Christian group feels that gay activists are using this bullying issue to push their own agenda in the schools.

Cooper asked her how she would suggest stopping the bullying of gays, lesbians, or kids who are perceived to be one of these if you can’t mention the words gay or lesbian. Her answer was that you should address the issue of the bullying itself rather than the reason for the bullying. When Cooper tried to pin Cushman down as to whether she would be okay with teachers identifying other forms of bullying, such as bullying of students because of their race for example, Cushman again glossed over the point he was trying to make by again focusing on gay rights activists using this legislation to promote their lifestyle and the need to only address the bully’s behavior rather than his reason for the behavior.

Dr. Eliza Byard, the executive director for GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which supports the Safe School Improvement Act, rebutted a neutral approach to dealing with bullying of gay and lesbian students saying, “The fact is, and the data bears out, if you don’t mention the specific problem, teachers don’t act and students don’t have a better experience. Our bill would cover all students, but indicates specifically that you must also include attention to these characteristics. And when you do, our data shows rates of harassment and victimization of LGBT, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students goes down. If you don’t mention that, there’s no effect.”

Rosalind Wiseman, writer of Queen Bees and Wannabes, told Cooper, “This is not just about the gay kids in school; this is about everybody because bullying does not exist without homophobia.”

She explained that kids are trying to prove that they belong, and if they speak out against something they feel is wrong, it is not uncommon for other students to call them gay, which paralyzes them from speaking out against future cruelty.  “And so it’s not just about the gay kids being safe, which I believe a hundred percent they have the right to be. It’s also about everybody in the school feeling that they have the right to speak out,” Rosalind continued.

Wiseman said, “So we can have policies that are about ideal reality or we can have policies that are about concrete reality and reflect what children are experiencing. And that’s when we become relevant to young people.”

“If you take out that language of naming the behavior, it becomes so amorphous that there is nothing to talk about, there’s no place to talk, there’s no place for that kid to define what is happening to him, and they also feel like they’re so ashamed that this is, you know, they can’t talk about it, these words are not allowed to be talked about. And so then they lose the whole process and the whole ability to have the conversation. They become silent.”

Liza summarized by saying, “The Safe Schools Improvement Act is about behavior not beliefs…Bullying is a dynamic in a classroom. Bullies need our help, victims need our help, and bystanders need our help. They need adults to act to take care of the culture of that classroom and build a culture of respect.”

Okay, here comes my opinion. First, as a fifth-grade teacher, I hear the words gay and fag bandied about all of the time. To pretend our kids aren’t saying these words and calling each other these names is utterly ridiculous. And I have had many students over the years, who already at fifth-grade are clearly questioning their sexuality or being bullied for perceived gay or lesbian tendencies. Again, to believe otherwise, as Rosalind said, is not the reality we see in schools today.

Our kids grow up being afraid of saying or doing something that will label them different in any way, just as much as they worry about looking different because they know that opens the door for bullying and teasing. Homophobia is alive in our schools and our neighborhoods. If we can’t use the words to describe the behavior, we send a clear message that, while the bullying is bad, so is the behavior that brought on the bullying.

We need to face reality and stop being so afraid of it. We have always had LGBT kids in our schools. We can’t ignore them away or bully them away, and we shouldn’t. They are as beautiful as any other student in our classrooms and deserving of our respect and protection.

It is my job, just as it is every teacher’s job, to treat these children as I would any other and to name behavior that does not treat students with respect for what it is, refusing to allow it in my classroom. I don’t care if you’re overweight, very tall, very short, wear glasses, have a big nose, big feet, gay, lesbian, or whatever. No one deserves to be bullied, and it is my job, because I am a teacher, to do everything I can to create a safe, healthy environment for every student in my classroom.

I refuse to be neutral about that. And I bet a lot of  Anoka-Hennepin teachers feel the same way.

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!