Anoka, Minnesota – This sprawling suburban school system, much of it within Michele Bachmann’s Congressional district, is caught in the eye of one of the country’s hottest culture wars — how homosexuality should be discussed in the schools.
After years of harsh conflict between advocates for gay students and Christian conservatives, the issue was already highly charged here. Then in July, six students brought a lawsuit contending that school officials have failed to stop relentless antigay bullying and that a district policy requiring teachers to remain “neutral” on issues of sexual orientation has fostered oppressive silence and a corrosive stigma.
Also this summer, parents and students here learned that the federal Department of Justice was deep into a civil rights investigation into complaints about unchecked harassment of gay students in the district. The inquiry is still under way.
Through it all, conservative Christian groups have demanded that the schools avoid any descriptions of homosexuality or same-sex marriage as normal, warning against any surrender to what they say is the “homosexual agenda” of recruiting youngsters to an “unhealthy and abnormal lifestyle.”
Adding an extra incendiary element, the school district has suffered eight student suicides in the last two years, leading state officials to declare a “suicide contagion.” Whether antigay bullying contributed to any of these deaths is sharply disputed; some friends and teachers say four of the students were struggling with issues of sexual identity.
In many larger cities, lessons in tolerance of sexual diversity are now routine parts of health education and antibully training. But in the suburbs the battle rages on, perhaps nowhere more bitterly than here in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, just north of Minneapolis. With 38,000 students, it is Minnesota’s largest school system, and most of it lies within the Congressional district of Ms. Bachmann, a Republican contender for president.
Ms. Bachmann has not spoken out on the suicides or the fierce debate over school policy and did not respond to requests to comment for this article. She has in the past expressed skepticism about antibullying programs, and she is an ally of the Minnesota Family Council, a Christian group that has vehemently opposed any positive portrayal of homosexuality in the schools.
School officials say they are caught in the middle, while gay rights advocates say there is no middle ground on questions of basic human rights.
“I think the adults are much more interested in making us into a political battlefield than the kids are,” said Dennis Carlson, the superintendent of schools. “We have people on the left and the right, and we’re trying to find common ground on these issues.”
“Keeping kids safe is common ground,” he said, pointing to district efforts to combat bullying and to new antisuicide efforts.
Gay children, and some parents and supporters, say these efforts are undercut by what they call the district’s “gag order” on discussion of sexual diversity — a policy, adopted in 2009 amid searing public debate, that “teaching about sexual orientation is not part of the district-adopted curriculum” and that staff “shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation.”
The lawsuit was brought in July on behalf of six current and former students by the Southern Poverty Law Center and by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. It charges that district staff members, when they witnessed or heard reports of antigay harassment, tended to “ignore, minimize, dismiss, or in some instances, to blame the victim for the other students’ abusive behavior.”
One of the plaintiffs, Kyle Rooker, 14, has not declared his sexual orientation but was perceived by classmates as gay, he said, in part because he likes to wear glittery scarves and belt out Lady Gaga songs. In middle school he was called epithets almost daily, and once he was urinated on from above the stall as he used the toilet.
“I love attention, but that’s the kind of drama I just can’t handle,” Kyle said, adding that when he was threatened in the locker room, school officials had him change in an assistant principal’s office rather than stopping the bullying.
The district’s demand of neutrality on homosexuality, the suit says, is inherently stigmatizing, has inhibited teachers from responding aggressively to bullying and has deterred them from countering destructive stereotypes.
“This policy clearly sends a message to LGBT kids that there is something shameful about who they are and that they are not valid people in history,” said Jefferson Fietek, a drama teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts, using the abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Mr. Fietek, the adviser to a recently formed Gay-Straight Alliance at his school, said he knew of several gay and lesbian students who had attempted or seriously considered suicide.
Colleen Cashen, a psychologist and counselor at the Northdale Middle School, said that by singling out homosexuality, the policy created “an air of shame,” and that contradictory interpretations from the administration had left teachers afraid to test the limits, seeing homosexuality and the history of gay rights as taboo subjects. “I believe that the policy is creating a toxic environment for the students,” she said.
Mr. Carlson, the superintendent, agreed that bullying persists but strongly denied that the school environment is generally hostile. He said he welcomed further initiatives that could result from negotiations over the lawsuit or with the federal investigators. “We want all students to feel welcome and safe,” he said.
But conservative parents have organized to lobby against change. “Saying that you should accept two moms as a normal family — that would be advocacy,” said Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council. “There should be no tolerance of bullying, but these groups are using the issue to try to press a social agenda.”
A group of district parents who are closely allied with the family council declined to be interviewed. Their Web site says that depression among gay teenagers is often the fault of gay rights advocates who create hopelessness: “When a child has been deliberately misinformed about the causes of homosexuality and told that homosexual acts are normal and natural, all hope for recovery is taken away.”
This article, “In Suburb, Battle Goes Public on Bullying Gay Students,” originally appeared at The New York Times.