Despite Lawsuits, Anti-Gay Parents’ Group Defends ’Neutrality’ Policy
Even though the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota faces two lawsuits over anti-gay bullying, a parents’ group insists that a so-called "neutrality policy" regarding GLBT issues has served the district well, reported Minnesota online news resource CityPages on Aug. 23.
Nine students in the troubled school district have killed themselves in the last two years, with a number of others having attempted suicide. Teen suicide is so prevalent in the Anoka-Hennepin School District that health authorities in the state have labeled it a "suicide contagion area."
A July 25 Mother Jones article noted that GOP presidential contender Michele Bachmann, whose congressional district includes Anoka-Hennepin, had campaigned against proactive measures to protect GLBT youth in the district’s schools, "seeing such initiatives as a way of allowing gays to recruit impressionable youths into an unhealthy and un-Christian lifestyle."
But the health of some gay teens -- and straight teens perceived to be gay -- has suffered without support from peers and mentors, the article suggested, relating the story of Samantha Johnson, a teen in the Anoka-Hennepin District who sought to establish a GSA at her school, Anoka Middle School. The district delayed the implementation of a student-run support group, citing as its reason a lack of certainty about the legality of GSAs.
Meantime, Samantha, whose mother says was heterosexual, was being bullied about her looks and dress. Whether she wore her usual clothing or tried to appear more feminine, the article said, the other students harassed her relentlessly about being a lesbian. In the end, Samantha shot herself with a hunting rifle.
Warning signs had sent her mother to school authorities --but to no avail. The article noted said that Samantha’s friends claimed most of the bullying took place out of the sight of school staff and security cameras, but even when staff caught sight of her being harassed they did nothing to stop it. Nor did the volleyball coach contact Samantha’s mother when the teen, depressed, stopped showing up for practice.
"If I had known, I would have pulled her out of that school so quick," Samantha’s mother said of the things taking place while her daughter was supposedly safe in class. But school officials left her in the dark.
"Samantha’s death was among the first in a wave of suicides and attempted suicides that plagued this district for the next two years," the article reported. Some believe that a major contributing factor is a policy referred to locally as "no homo promo," the article said, a policy that had its beginnings in the mid-1990s.
"Back then, after several emotional school board meetings, the district essentially wiped gay people out of the school health curriculum," the article said. "There could be no discussion of homosexuality, even with regard to HIV and AIDS, and the school board adopted a formal policy that stated school employees could not teach that homosexuality was a ’normal, valid lifestyle.’ "
In 2009, the district amended that policy to a "neutral" policy that left staff and faculty unsure about what was allowed and what might get them fired. Could they intervene in bullying situations? Could they invite students who seemed troubled to talk openly if they suspected that sexuality was at the root of the problem?
"Both policies were put into place at the behest of conservative religious activists who have been among Bachmann’s biggest supporters in the district," the article said. "They include the Minnesota Family Council (MFC), and its local affiliate, the Parents Action League, which has lobbied to put discredited ’reparative therapy’ materials in schools."
The City Pages posting noted that the results, seen from outside the school district, look like an unqualified disaster. But that has not caused anti-gay groups in the state to reconsider the policies they promote. Even in the thick of a rash of student suicides that rocked the nation -- a rash in which Anoka-Hennepin seemed to be an epicenter -- the real life needs of teens apparently took a back seat to political grand standing, with a new anti-gay group forming just last year to combat the Anoka Middle School GSA that eventually did take form.
"The policy has gotten the Anoka-Hennepin School District sued twice now, with the families of six students filing lawsuits through either the Southern Poverty Law Center of the National Center for Lesbian Rights," the City Pages article said. "It’s also brought the district under investigation from the U.S. Justice Department and the Department of Education."
The bullying that reportedly goes on in the school district is not confined to gays. Straight students who find themselves labeled as gay are also marked for relentless harassment -- sometimes not just by students, but also by school staff, as in the case of a heterosexual student named Alex Merritt. Making things worse was the manner in which two teachers reportedly tag-teamed the abuse they directed the Merritt.