07/21/2011

Why We're Suing Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District

For some students in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District, another day at school is more than just another day of classes, tests and extra-curricular activities. It’s another day of relentless harassment from classmates.

Whether in the classroom or the hallways, their day is filled with a torrent of anti-gay slurs. The words are repeatedly hurled at them: “fag,” “queer,” “homo,” “dyke.” Other times, the epithets are a parting shot that follows a shove against a locker, a kick, a choke or a punch.

But in Anoka-Hennepin, when students have appealed to a teacher or principal for help, the adults did little, if anything, to stop the anti-LGBT harassment. They have dispensed advice like “lay low” or “try to stay out of people’s way.” That’s because in Anoka-Hennepin, the district has a gag policy that prevents teachers from standing up for these students and speaking out against the abuses they suffer.

And the bullies know it.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has urged the school district to live up to its responsibility to create a safe learning environment for all of its students and, specifically, to repeal its “Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy.” This policy has become, in effect, a gag rule for teachers. It not only prevents teachers from openly discussing issues related to LGBT people but makes them reluctant to intervene when students are harassed.

Unfortunately, the school district has refused to take this critical step for protecting its students. That’s why the SPLC and its allies today filed a federal lawsuit seeking to end this policy and the rampant anti-LGBT harassment in Anoka-Hennepin schools.

It’s discouraging that it may take a federal court order for the school district to address concerns that parents and community members have repeatedly raised. Last fall, the SPLC traveled to Minnesota to meet with community members and host a screening of our new Teaching Tolerance documentary, Bullied, in Minneapolis. More than 2,000 people gathered to watch the film, which tells the story of a student who endured anti-LGBT bullying in school. The community’s concern for its students was palpable.

Earlier this year, the SPLC returned to Anoka-Hennepin when changes to a school function at Champlin Park High School threatened to prevent two lesbian students from participating in the event as a couple. The school’s action not only violated the constitutional rights of the two students but sent a dangerous message to their classmates that LGBT students are not welcome in the school community – a message that only emboldens students harassing their LGBT classmates.

The SPLC and its allies filed a lawsuit on behalf of the young women. Less than 24 hours later, a settlement agreement was reached that allowed the students to participate in the event as a couple. It was an encouraging sign that the district was willing to protect the rights of all students – including LGBT students.

After the settlement, we urged the district to take the next logical step to protect all students – repeal the gag policy. Sadly, the district has refused to recognize the obvious. Officials have refused to acknowledge that this policy serves no legitimate educational purpose and that it singles out and stigmatizes a vulnerable minority. And they have refused to recognize that it strips teachers of their ability to protect these students.

The SPLC cannot stand by while these students suffer. That’s why we are taking this action. It’s time to end a dangerous silence that leaves students isolated and vulnerable every single day they attend school.