Two national civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit against Anoka-Hennepin School District for what they say is a failure to properly address bullying aimed at LGBT pupils due to a “gag policy” on LGBT subjects.
The Southern Poverty Law Center together with the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and legal firm Faegre & Benson, LLP, has launched the suit on behalf of five students who claim they suffered severe anti-LGBT bullying and harassment while at school in the district.
The district has a unique policy relating to LGBT topics in that it instructs teachers to remain “neutral” on the subject of LGBTs, that is to say they cannot appear to affirm that being gay or trans is normal or acceptable but at the same time should not be seen to condemn pupils.
This may sound a reasonable compromise on the face of it, but while the policy does not in fact exclude mention of LGBTs in the classroom it has led to teachers remaining silent on the issue and in turn, the suit says, has meant the district has ignored pervasive and systemic anti-LGBT bullying.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota after the school district failed to address the persistent abuse or repeal its discriminatory policy.
“There is something seriously wrong in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, and district officials know it,” said NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell, Esq. “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 acknowledgement within the classroom.”
The lawsuit charges that LGBT students and students perceived as LGBT were subjected to anti-LGBT slurs on a daily basis and were physically threatened or attacked by peers. While many of these abuses occurred in front of teachers or were reported to school officials, school personnel almost always took insufficient action to stop the abuse.
The lawsuit comes a day after Anoka-Hennepin School District officials denied any responsibility for the severe and pervasive harassment suffered by LGBT students. It was also reported on Wednesday that the district is at the center of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of Civil Rights because of reports of anti-gay bullying.
The lawsuit also describes numerous incidents of harassment that children are said to have suffered in the district.
One student said she suffered daily verbal and physical harassment at school after classmates found out that she is a lesbian. When on numerous occasions she reported this harassment to school officials their only response, she says, was an occasional verbal reprimand for the harassers. The student dropped out of school and she even reportedly attempted suicide.
Similarly, another student mentioned in the suit reported sustained anti-LGBT bullying that lasted over two years. His school, it is alleged, told him to leave because they said they could not protect him.
Another 14-year old student spoke up this week at the press conference announcing the suit and said, “It got so bad that every day when my bus got to school I thought about hiding under one of the seats so I wouldn’t have to go in to school: so I wouldn’t be called names or pushed around, and so I wouldn’t have to hear the rumors other kids were making up about me.”
Why has this happened? The lawsuit in part blames the district’s policy on excluding talk about LGBTs in the classroom:
The school district’s gag policy, known officially as the “Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy,” prohibits staff from offering support to LGBT students or acknowledging the existence of LGBT people. It has played a significant role in encouraging the hostile anti-LGBT climate in the district, by imposing a stigma on LGBT students as pariahs, not fit to be mentioned within the school community—a message that comes across loud and clear both to LGBT students and their harassers. It has also limited the effective responses that teachers can provide when they see anti-LGBT harassment taking place.
The lawsuit asserts that the district’s gag policy and its failure to protect these students from harassment violated these students’ rights under the United States Constitution, Title IX, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
The SPLC, NCLR, and Faegre & Benson began investigating the district’s policies in 2010 after several LGBT students from the district died by suicide.
For its part, the school district has said it is “disappointed” that the lawsuit is going ahead and that it would have preferred that the NCLR and associated groups had worked with the district to improve its anti-bullying policy. That said, the district reiterated that it fully supports the sexual orientation curriculum policy as it stands.
In addition to this lawsuit, the U.S. Justice Department made it known this week that it is investigating the district over complaints of harassment. This follows at least seven young people in the district having taken their own lives over the past two years, with a majority of those deaths attributed, at least in part, to bullying.