Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest in the state of Minnesota, has been at the center of a tug of war between the LGBT community, which says the district is not safe for students, and religious right parents, who want all mentions of LGBT issues stricken from school curricula and programming. At issue is a policy that restricts LGBT content in the schools, a policy the school district said on Monday it would not change. In response, a pair of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit Thursday morning. In addition, federal authorities have opened an investigation into the school district.
“There is something seriously wrong in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, and district officials know it,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). “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 acknowledgment within the classroom.”
The NCLR, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed suit on behalf of five of the district’s students on Thursday. The students allege harassment because they identify as or are perceived to be LGBT, and the lawsuit targets the district’s “sexual orientation curriculum policy,” which limits discussions of LGBT issues in the classroom and in school programming.
That policy says that discussion of sexual orientation should be “addressed within individual family homes, churches or community organizations.” The policy has been vociferously defended by the Parents Action League, a group of conservative Christian parents headed up by Minnesota Family Council staffer Barb Anderson.
In an interview late last year with Americans for the Truth About Homosexuality (AFTAH), a group that has been designated by the SPLC as a hate group, Anderson boasted of success in efforts to keep LGBT content out of the schools and said it’s the fault of LGBT community leaders that LGBT students get bullied.
“That is one of the tactics that they are using now, to say that by not legitimizing and normalizing homosexuality, we are creating an atmosphere in the schools that is hostile to quote-end-quote gay kids,” she said. “What they are doing is just the opposite themselves. They are creating an environment where these children that are sexually confused suddenly become affirmed as a homosexual or that they are born that way, and then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death in some cases.”
She added, “So, it’s really… They are the ones that are contributing to an atmosphere that can even increase bullying as more kids get into this kind of a lifestyle.”
The sexual orientation policy itself is rooted in a previous 1995 policy that said homosexuality should not be “taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle” in the schools.
This spring, NCLR and SPLC urged the district to change the policy and foster a safer environment for LGBT student or it would file a civil rights lawsuit.
And just before the lawsuit was filed, CNN uncovered documents on Monday that showed the Department of Justice and the Department of Education were investigating reports of civil rights violations in the school district.
Last week, residents of Anoka-Hennepin submitted a petition with over 12,000 names asking the board to rescind the sexual orientation policy. Community members have sought the scrapping of the policy, calling on the board to make changes after a spate of suicides among district students which some say are the result of bullying based on sexual orientation.
“The way things look now, I don’t see that happening,” said school board chair Tom Heideman of scrapping the policy. “We worked with groups on both sides of the issue when we wrote that policy and we’ve received petitions from both sides. We haven’t heard anything that really tells us we’ve got a bad policy.”
That triggered today’s lawsuit, which alleges violations of students’ equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, federal Title 9 rules and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
The SPLC’s Sam Wolfe, told reporters on Thursday, “What we found was a pattern throughout the entire school district, students that are being harassed verbally and physically because of their perceived differences. They’ve all been verbally harassed, such as being called faggot, dyke, whore.”
He continued, “One kid with two fathers, the other kids would say things like, ‘Your dads are gay, you must be, too. Why don’t you suck their cocks?’”
He said that students had endured physical abuse, including being pushed down stairs and thrown into lockers and garbage cans,. One student was stabbed in the neck with a pencil because other students thought he was gay.
“In too many instances the school response was woefully inadequate,” Wolfe said.
NCLR’s Kendall said the stories her group has heard from students are “truly hair-raising and stomach-turning.”
Alona Turner of the NCLR said the sexual orientation policy impacts teachers as well.
“Teachers have been told that they can’t mention gay people were killed by the Nazis and are prevented from mentioning that the major medical positions have rejected the idea that homosexuality is a choice,” she said.
“The district calls it a neutrality policy, but it does not bar discussions or mentions of heterosexuals or heterosexuality.”
She called the level of harassment in Anoka-Hennepin a “unique situation” that the group hasn’t seen elsewhere in Minnesota and that the sexual orientation policy is the only one of its kind that the group knows of in the country.
Kendall said if it affected anyone other than LGBT people, there would be outrage.
“If there was a policy that said we aren’t going to talk about Mormons or the contributions of Native Americans, we would never tolerate it. We would see it for what it is. It’s bigotry,” she said.
She added, “This is Michele Bachmann’s district. I think there are members of this school board that share her cruel and inhumane views toward LGBT people, and I think it has a lot to do with why this policy was enacted and why it survives.”
Three of Anoka-Hennepin school board members, including the board chair, are up for re-election this fall.