Following the suicide of seven current or recently-graduated middle and high school students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, district officials say they are ramping up anti-bullying efforts. However, advocates are questioning the district’s commitment to addressing what they say is rampant anti-LGBT bullying while a group of secretive Anoka-area anti-LGBT activists are able to threaten any pro-LGBT changes in the district.
Seven Anoka-Hennepin students committed suicide in the last school year including three who, LGBT activists in the school district say, looked to suicide as a way to escape intense anti-LGBT bullying in school.
In response, Anoka-Hennepin officials brought in suicide-prevention specialists from SAVE, a suicide awareness education organization based in Bloomington, using money from a Minnesota Department of Education grant. In an interview with TheColu.mn, SAVE’s Executive Director said he and other members of the SAVE staff conducted 45-minute trainings for district staff detailing how to respond to suicide, intense three-hour trainings for specific district staff that focused on suicide-prevention resources, and presentations for all students in the district aimed at reducing any stigma related to discussing suicidal feelings, mental illnesses linked to suicidal behavior, and ways students could support friends who are considering committing suicide.
Daniel J. Reidenberg said the SAVE presentation included discussion of anti-LGBT bullying and the high rate of suicide among LGBT youth, but said that the district did not give his organization specific instructions to cover this kind of bullying.
“I think the district did a very nice job with” the suicides, Reidenberg said. “They asked for advice, listened very carefully to our suggestions, and organized this immediate response” to the suicides.
School district spokesperson Mary Olson told TheColu.mn in an email that the district is also planning to give teachers a handbook on anti-LGBT bullying, which Olson said will compliment anual training on the district’s anti-bullying policies. Teachers complain that the school’s decision to take a “neutral stance” on sexual orientation has made them afraid of intervening in anti-LGBT bullying in the classroom.
Olson said the district is also planning on showing short videos to all middle and high school students to educate them about hate speech, and pointed out that the district has a voluntary staff development program called SEED, which focuses on diversity education.
“We want every child to feel safe in school because we know that if kids do not feel safe in school they cannot learn,” Olson said in an interview last week.
However, Olson said there are currently no plans for mandatory, district-wide anti-bullying trainings for teachers focused on reducing anti-LGBT bullying.
School District Trying to Avoid The Problem?
The district’s measures so far have won limited praise from the two most prominent advocates for the district’s LGBT students.
“The district is in a much better place now than a year ago,” Julie Blaha, president of the local teachers’ union told TheColu.mn. “If we can keep talking and working, I’m excited to see where we’re going to be a year from now.”
Peter Gokey, a former Anoka-Hennepin teacher and a leader in the local parent-teacher advocacy group the Gay Equality Team concurs. “I believe them that they’re going to take the bullying seriously,” he told TheColu.mn in an interview.
However, Gokey says, the problem is more fundamental: the school district’s neutrality policy means teachers are “walking on eggshells” when LGBT topics come up in class or in the hallways, and can’t offer LGBT students the kind of positive affirmation he says they need to feel welcome in one of the state’s most conservative regions.
“I have been in classroom discussions where someone will bring up the matter of [GLBT]” Megan Hawkins, a lesbian and a 2010 graduate of Anoka High School told last week’s school board meeting. “I’ll have students saying things like ‘that’s so gay’ or ‘they are horrible’ and ‘they are wrong’ and ‘it’s disgusting,’ and this isn’t considered to be bullying. But it is. You hear that everywhere and teachers just let this happen…And so you begin to think you are worthless.”
Up to now, the district seems to have maintained a policy of strategic avoidance when it comes to school climate issues. Last year, Gokey told TheColu.mn, a student bullied for their sexual orientation was told by an administrator that they “needed to be less gay” if they wanted to avoid bullies’ attentions, and another student who was bullied in the halls and after school for having two gay fathers was given a hall pass so he could leave class early at the end of the day, and avoid his tormenters.
Following the Alex Merritt scandal, the district it rejected offers of all-staff training from OutFront Minnesota, aimed at increasing staff cultural competency around LGBT issues. According to a letter to OutFront’s attorney Phil Duran, the district said its current policies and procedures were sufficient to achieve these aims.
In her testimony before the Anoka-Hennepin school board, Hawkins said she had found this to be the case in at least one instance.
“I once had a teacher in class that asked me in the middle of class if I was gay,” Hawkins continued, “and I was so terrified because I knew there were students in that class that were haters, and one of my friends had recently been pushed down the stairs and called a ‘dyke’ in the middle of school. Terrified, I was just like, ‘No, I am just against hatred of any kind. That’s why I have this rainbow on my bag, of course.'”
Anti-Gay Citizens’ Group Could Threaten School Funding
One answer to administrators’ reluctance to address the larger issues of school climate may lie in the politics of school district funding. Like many districts around the state facing a mismatch between state aid and the need to keep class size down, pay for busing, and pay for staff healthcare and pension plans, Anoka-Hennepin schools are dependent on an $8 million property tax levy. Even with the levy, the district faced an $18 million budget deficit last year.
The levy coming up for renewal in November 2011, and that is likely gnawing on administrators, Blaha told TheColu.mn. Blaha worked with parents and district administrators in the push to get the 2009 levy passed and says the stakes are high: without a levy, the district would need to cut at least $26 million from its budget, the equivalent of 200 teachers’ jobs.
“Too often though we have to think about voters, about public opinoion and what could be in an attack piece” the teachers union president said. “We’ve lost levies in the past [in 2001], and there’s a really strong ‘no new taxes’ feeling out here.”
In this atmosphere, Blaha says, anything that damages the district’s credibility, like accusations that it is “promoting the homosexual lifestyle” using money from primarily conservative taxpayers, could mean public opposition to continuing the levy. “If [residents] don’t trust the district, they don’t want to support you,” she said.
At least one group in the district has enough political clout to cow administrators over LGBT issues. The Parents Action League has in the past communicated to teachers that it was “watching them” for violations of the district’s neutrality policy, and at least one parent that GET’s Gokey says is connected to PAL successfully campaigned to stop the showing of a film in a history class that compared “gay liberation” movements to the American Civil Rights movement, complaining that it violated the policy.
The group previously posted many of its socially-conservative policy positions on its website, but following the publication of a story in the Minnesota Independent detailing these positions, the group has placed its website “under construction.”