July 25, 2011 | by Shannon Cuttle
Anoka-Hennepin School District faces Federal Lawsuit over “Neutrality” Policy

MINNESOTA – Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota’s largest school district that serves 40,000 students was the target of a a Federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and Faegre & Benson, LLP.

According to SPLC and NCLR, 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 Anoka-Hennepin school district has been the subject of an investigation since the fall of 2010, after several students and community members came forward to report both verbal and physical bullying and harassment . During the ten month investigation, SPLC heard from students and teachers about concerns regarding the “neutrality” policy and implications of a gag policy in the classroom.

According to Sam Wolfe, lead attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, students have reported being called vicious anti-gay slurs and subjected to being physically assaulted pushed into school lockers and trash cans due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. One student even was reportedly attacked by a pencil and stabbed in the back of the neck.

Since 2009, the Anoka-Hennepin community has also suffered great loss as six students have completed suicide allegedly due to bullying and harassment in the district, making it one of the highest in the nation.

“Ten months ago we came to Anoka because a community was grieving over the loss of their children and we found a pattern in the school district ” said Sam Wolfe, lead attorney on the case for the SPLC.

The Ankoa-Hennepin school district “neutrality” policy has been in place since 1995 and restricts teachers from speaking about lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) persons in the classroom. Local teachers have also come forward to speak out against the “neutrality” policy because they say it restricts discussions and enforcement of bullying and harassment polices and does not create a safe school environment often leaving them unable to to help.

SPLC and NCLR have been in talks with the Ankoa-Hennepin school district since May and have asked the district to remove its so-called “neutrality” gag policy. The Anoka- Hennepin school district announced Wednesday that it will not change the “neutrality” policy but instead offered to work with SPLC and NCLR to provide training instead.

“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.”

GLSEN released a research brief last month based on findings from Minnesota LGBT students who participated in the 2009 National School Climate Survey. The brief found that 84% of Minnesota LGBT students had been harassed or assaulted in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 61% because of their gender expression.

“These polices have a chilling effect on lgbt students” said Eliza Byard, Executive Director of GLSEN

SPLC and NCLR are not the only groups asking the Anoka-Hennepin school district to remove the “neutrality’ policy.

Local groups in Minnesota, such as the Anoka Gay Equity Team, have been asking for the removal of the policy in support of SPLC and NCLR. Justin Anderson, a 2010 graduate of Blaine High School in Anoka-Hennepin and a volunteer with the Equity Team presented a petition to the Anoka-Hennepin school board meeting last week from change.org with over 12,000 signatures asking the school board to remove the “neutrality” policy and put students first.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district is also facing a Federal investigation announced this week.

The Department of Justice along with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights have been investigating the school district after a rash of suicides this past Fall and looking into allegations of a hostile environment for students.

Last October, the Department of Education and Office of Civil Rights released a Dear Colleague letter to schools nationwide that gave a reminder about OCR enforcement and guidance on bullying and harassment under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Shannon Cuttle is a educator, school administrator, safe schools trainer, community organizer and policy wonk. She is the Director of the Safe Schools Action Network a national non-profit dedicated to creating inclusive safe schools and can also be found at change.org.

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