Justin Aaberg (Photo courtesy of Tammy Aaberg)
Since news broke that at least one parent and several LGBT activists are blaming the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s policy of “neutrality” on issues of sexual orientation for rampant and deadly anti-LGBT bullying at schools in the district, Anoka-Hennepin administrators have announced a raft of new anti-bullying policies and trumpeted past anti-bullying practices in letters to parents and community members. However, due to this neutrality policy, the district has chosen to avoid one of the most effective anti-bullying solutions recommended by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network in their latest report.

GLSEN’s 2009 School Climate Survey, released Tuesday, points to four measures school administrators can take as they try to confront anti-gay bullying: supporting the creation and work of a Gay-Straight Alliance; including positive representations of LGBT people, history, and events in their school curriculum; increasing the number of teachers who LGBTA students perceive to be strong allies and supporters; creating a comprehensive harassment and assault policy that specifically included protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.

“You can’t legislate happiness, said GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Bayard in an interview with TheColu.mn, “but you can put building blocks in place to make responsability [for anti-LGBT bullying] clear and send a signal to young people that they have support.”

Three of Four

The Anoka-Hennepin School District does already have some of these protections in place. GSAs have existed in at least three of the district’s six high schools, and a significant sources of support for students in those schools, according to Peter Gokey, a former Anoka-Hennepin teacher and spokesperson for the Gay Equality Team, a group of local teachers, parents, and community members who are trying to get the district’s neutrality policy repealed.

In emails to TheColu.mn, district spokespeople have repeatedly stated that teachers are now required to intervene any time they witness anti-LGBT bullying during school or during a school-related activity, and have received a Powerpoint presentation on how to intervene in cases of bullying or the use of words like “dyke,” fag,” or “gay” in derogatory ways. However, according to Gokey and students testifying at an August 23 school board meeting, teachers typically did not intervene in such bullying or name-calling, fearing disciplinary action from administrators for violating the neutrality policy or its predecessor, which prohibited teachers from portraying homosexuality in a positive light until its repeal last year. At the August 23 meeting, school board chair Tom Heideman “clarified” the primacy of the district’s anti-bullying policy over the curriculum policy on sexual orientation in response to the students’ testimony.

Lastly, Anoka-Hennepin administrators say they have been sending school counselors, psychologists, Student Learning Advocates, and alcohol- and drug-use prevention specialists to trainings on “LGBT issues” since October 2009, and have provdied them with “Safe Space Kits” from GLSEN. District spokesperson said these staff members were expected to “be dealing most frequently with LGBT issues.”

Anoka-Hennepin secondary schools have between one and nine of these personnel, who are not expected to pass on their training to teachers, according to the same spokesperson. Last year, depending on the building, there were between 420 and 1094 middle school students per trained staff member and between 240 and 501 students per trained staff member.

GLSEN’s Recommendations

Despite having technically met three of GLSEN’s four recommended anti-bullying interventions, according to a district spokesperson, administrators have “no plans” to revisit the curriculum policy, even though the GLSEN research suggests it is an effective way of addressing anti-LGBT bullying. In GLSEN’s school climate survey, researchers pointed out that at schools with a curriculum that included positive representations of LGBT people, history, and events, the percentage of students reporting verbal or physical harassment based on sexual orientation dropped by about 16%, intervention by school staff when students make homophobic remarks increases by about 17%, and the percentage of students in a school who feel accepted by their peers increased by about 24%. The other three recommended interventions return similar results, according to the GLSEN report.

In a letter sent by the district to several parents and community members in the district who had contacted administrators to criticize the current policy enumerated past anti-bullying policies and the new measures, and concluded “[g}iven these facts, we believe we have taken positive action to address concerns of suicide and harassment and bullying of GLBT students.”

“A lot of [student] wellbeing issues are bound up in curriculum,” GLSEN’s Bayard told TheColu.mn, criticizing any measure that “restrict the ability of adults to talk about anti-LGBT bullying in respectful ways.”

Still, Bayard said, any anti-bullying campaign “has to be accompanied by adults modeling respect…it’s the lynchpin of all this.”

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