The Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota has received extensive coverage in the past few days with news of a federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in addition to an investigation by the Departments of Justice and Education into the school district’s handling of anti-LGBT bullying.
The Anoka-Hennepin school district has been in the national spotlight throughout the past year with news of multiple student suicide deaths and multiple reports of anti-LGBT bullying. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of five current and former students who have faced anti-LGBT bullying, challenges the district’s ‘sexual orientation curriculum’ policy which requires educators to remain “neutral” on issues of sexual orientation.
As national media outlets amplify these stories, GLAAD is paying close attention to sensationalizing tactics that gloss over the concrete harms students face. As advocates, it’s important to remember that all students feel the impact of bullying. The StarTribune reports that the federal investigation focuses on the harassment of students based on their real or perceived orientation and for “not conforming to gender stereotypes.” A Reuters report summarizes the lawsuit as the argument “that a policy limiting staff discussions about gay and lesbian issues left them open to slurs, threats and attacks” and goes on to quote the lawsuit, saying that “this type of verbal and physical abuse was relentless and inescapable.” Importantly, Reuters goes on to demonstrate that anti-LGBT bullying affects all students, pointing out that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit identify as straight, lesbian, bisexual, and gay.
The local CBS affiliate WCCO Channel 4 reports on the “lawsuit saying the school district failed to keep students safe from bullying and harassment,” alleging that administrators have “done very little to protect students from harassment based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation.” The story goes on to illustrate the concrete harms of bullying, quoting one plaintiff, 14-year-old straight student Kyle Rooker, as he describes the bullying he’s experienced: “For the last 3 years, kids have been calling me names and shoving me into lockers, desks and walls. Just because they say I am different.”
With anti-LGBT bullying emerging as a national problem, the focus on the Anoka-Hennepin school district is in large part due to its sexual orientation curriculum policy which exists in addition to an anti-bullying policy. An article by the Pioneer Press includes the most recent version of the policy which states that sexual orientation is “best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations.” And that staff “shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including, but not limited to, student-led discussion. If, and when staff address sexual orientation, it is important that staff do so in a respectful manner that is age-appropriate, factual, and pertinent to the relevant curriculum.” Another article in the StarTribune reports that it is “the only local school district known to have such a policy.” The article points to the argument by advocates illustrating the potential links between the curriculum policy and and educators’ abilities to keep students safe from anti-LGBT bullying. Again, the StarTribune effectively illustrates this harm by talking to one teacher who “when students found out he was gay and asked him about it, he said he hesitated to discuss it because he didn’t want to violate the district’s policy.” In an interview with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, Fort Worth Texas City Councilman and 2011 GLAAD Media Award recipient Joel Burns comments on the policy saying that it “creates a culture of fear” where students “know that they can’t go talk to their teachers about the issues they want to talk about” Watch the full interview below.
Yet not all of the coverage is fair and balanced in its approach to the story. A commentary hosted by Minnesota Public Radio News gives voice to Jeremy Tedesco of the Alliance Defense Fund, who calls the NCLR’s interpretation of the policy “nothing other than a calculated move to advance their political agenda.” He suggests that existing anti-bullying policies are sufficient to stop or prevent bullying because “bullies are equal opportunists who will pick on any student for any reason.” A different report by CNN highlighted similar remarks made by Candi Cushman, a spokesperson for Focus on the Family.
These “spokespeople” fail to acknowledge the significantly higher levels of bullying that LGBT and LGBT-perceived students face, as documented by extensive research and surveys. For instance, GLSEN's National Report on School Bullying finds that LGBT students are three times more likely to feel unsafe at school. Additional research shows that 9 out of 10 LGBT students face harassment in school. Furthermore, organizations such as the Alliance Defense Fund and Focus on the Family lack experts in psychology, education, or fields that actually pertain to this case. GLAAD urges media to seek the most knowledgeable, fair experts to speak about the issues that affect LGBT and LGBT-perceived youth in schools.
GLAAD will continue to monitor national and local coverage of the Anoka-Hennepin lawsuit.