The Anoka-Hennepin School District is about to get more national scrutiny as the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network announced that they’re joining with a coalition of teachers, parents, and community members in the district who are pushing administrators to improve anti-bullying policies and lobbying the school board to eliminate a policy that requires teachers to remain “neutral” on issues of homosexuality in classroom settings.

“Our interest has been in listening to the community members’ specific concerns and channel that into something productive to lead to a better outcome,” GLSEN’s Executive Director Eliza Byard told TheColu.mn in an interview.

In addition to joining the Anoka-Hennepin Gay Equality Team (GET) in lobbying administrators and school board members, Byard said, her organization is giving media-relations training to the activists and offering strategic advice.

“We’re listening to the concerns they’ve raised and suggest ways they may engage with the school district,” Byard said.

GLSEN and a member of the Twin Cities steering committee of the Human Rights Campaign will be joining in a press conference just before Monday’s school board meeting in Anoka, called by GET to highlight the past “confusion, inconsistency and a hostile school climate” created by the district’s sexual orientation curriculum policy

Byard rejected suggestions that GLSEN’s involvement was intended as an escalation in the fight between the district and GET. “We stand ready to assist the district, school board and community in any way they ask for. We’re not stepping back from anybody,” Byard said. “We offer any constructive expertise we have to help the district reach a better place….We have no interest in villifying anyone here”

District spokespeople declined to comment on Monday’s scheduled press conference with GLSEN, GET, and the HRC member, but said they were already “working with GLSEN,” citing the district’s distribution of Safe Space Kits to counselors, psychologists, and other guidance personnel.

As TheColu.mn reported last week, there are between between 420 and 1094 middle school students per guidance department staff member and between 240 and 501 high school students per guidance department staff member, depending on the school building. Byard agreed that these ratios raise questions that district staff would not be able to adequately respond to anti-LGBT bullying.

“Clearly they have not figured out the right combinations of supports yet,” she told TheColu.mn. “These are issues that play out in front of every staff member.”

Byard suggested that the district needs to give teachers training in anti-LGBT bullying, but said that even staff working in the cafeteria should be engaged in bullying-prevention efforts.

To date, the district has given administrators and teachers guidelines about what words constitute verbal anti-LGBT bullying, and in numerous public statements spokespeople and school board members have said that anti-LGBT bullying will not be tolerated.

Jessi Tebben, the head of Minneapolis Public Schools’ Out4Good office and a local expert on bullying prevention told TheColu.mn that these kinds of measures are not ideal, but could be a first step towards more proactive policies.

“Some people think that if we only give people information about definitions, it will solve the problem, but school climate is much more complex than that,” she told TheColu.mn. “It does start the conversation, though, and shows the district is willing to talk about bullying.”

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