Anti-bullying bill seeks safe schools for all

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“It started in middle school,” Gary Skarsten said, remembering a gay student he used to mentor from a town near Braham, Minn. “He was being taunted on the playground — being called a ‘fag,’ and that sort of thing.”

It’s an all-too-familiar story for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or transsexual students or their parents – students being singled out and mercilessly harassed by other students because school administrators can’t, or won’t, act. A coalition of Minnesota LGBT advocacy groups is trying to keep this story from repeating with a bill that would require all schools to have anti-bullying policies that protect a broad range of youth, including LGBT students.

“The student [near Braham] would come home in tears; his parents didn’t know what to do – they tried everything with the school district,” said Skarsten, a member of the Cambridge, Minn., chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, known as PFLAG, and a gay rights advocate in north-central Minnesota.

When I met them for the first time [after this bullying had gone on for some time], they were in tears because nothing had worked.”

At one point, Skarsten said, the parents “feared for his [their son’s] life.”

Fed up with inaction by the school, they eventually pulled their son out of the district and sent him to a school in St. Cloud, about 35 miles away.

“The school administrators knew what was going on, because the parents had met with them several times. I think the problem was the district didn’t know how to deal with it,” said Skarsten.

Stephanie Hazen of the Minnesota advocacy group Rainbow Families says a number of school districts around the state are in a similar position, mainly because administrators may be confused about laws about bullying.

Districts tend to follow the lead of the statewide Association of School Boards in setting their anti-discrimination policies. The association in turn follows a statute requiring schools to have a “model policy” that includes sexual, racial and religious harassment (harassment is a legally recognized form of discrimination). The Minnesota Human Rights Act specifically protects citizens based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

That’s why, she said, Rainbow Families is crafting the Safe Schools for All Bill in cooperation with OutFront, Minnesota’s biggest LGBT lobbying group, and state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL- Minneapolis.

“The bill will essentially fix the [“model policy”] statute and broaden it beyond the Human Rights Act to include physical appearance,” as well as gender identity and sexual orientation, Hazen said. “Our research shows it’s the biggest reason a student gets bullied.”

Or, as Monica Meyer of OutFront put it, “You’ll be protected, even if you’ve got big ears.”

Hazen said she couldn’t speak on the legislation’s prospects once it’s introduced, as the bill’s wording was still being finalized.

Alan Horowitz of St. Paul Public Schools’ Out For Equity program said Safe Schools for All would give local advocates across Minnesota “resources to go to their school boards and community meetings and ask for policies” to protect LGBT students and students from LGBT families.

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have long-standing policies protecting these students, he said, and have created offices to train teachers and administrators to deal with anti-LGBT bullying and help students educate their peers about what it’s like to be an LGBT student or to have LGBT parents.

“Because the issue is so new,” said Horowitz, “a lot of people don’t know what to do and are afraid to ask. The legislation has the potential to put vocabulary words in the law and be a conversation-starter.”

If you were to map the environment for young LGBT Minnesotans, the result would look like a patchwork quilt – some towns are fairly friendly, activists said, but in others it feels intimidating or even dangerous to be out.

“In small towns, it can all depend on one teacher or a principal who makes it their mission” to make the school welcoming, says Leigh Combs, the LGBT Kids Abuse and Prevention coordinator at Minneapolis-based Family and Children’s Service. “It’s different from town to town.”

Since the student Skarsten formerly advsied left his school for St. Cloud, he said, a number of district leaders havetried to improve the climate for LGBT students. But in Bemidji, said activist Cathy Perry, “as far as I can tell, we haveno ongoing, active support groups.”

“There are no GSAs [Gay-Straight Alliances] in the schools,” Perry said, ”and the area PFLAG group shut down a few years ago because they claimed a lack of interest. The only people who were coming to their meetings were gay or lesbian.”

“If no programs are being provided, if evangelical churches who see their sexuality is an abomination are so strong [in Bemidji], what do you think their life is like?” asked Perry, speaking about LGBT students.

Perry said she thinks Horowitz is being overly optimistic when he suggests the Safe Schools for All bill would give her fellow Bemidji activists much leverage. She predicts a “Minnesota Nice” reaction. “They’ll smile and say, ‘Thank you, we’ll address that and we have policies are addressing it,’” she said.

Language for the Safe Schools for All bill is being finalized, said Outfront’s Meyer, and it will be circulated for review “in a few days.” It’s hard to gauge its prospects should it hit Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s desk, although there’s promise because it requires no funding and targets not only LBGT students. But even if it does get passed, said Perry, “it would still be an uphill battle. We have no political allies here. No one on the school board, no one in the courts, no one on the City Council. Will they [the bill’s authors] have anyone who patrols and monitors it?”

While the bill may offer limited help in some communities, it certainly could have helped the student Skarsten advised, who is now doing well, albeit at a school a good drive from home. He’ll be graduating this year in St. Cloud, Skarsten said. His former high school will be putting on the “Laramie Project,” a play about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepherd in 1998.

“We’ve got a long way to go yet,” Skarsten said. “And we’re taking it one step at a time.”

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