New evidence of the bullying crisis in our schools appears daily in news reports and blogs. For some students, verbal harassment, cyber-ostracism and physical abuse are as routine as turning in homework. That’s particularly true for students who are—or simply perceived to be—gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).
Schools, districts and even state legislatures struggle to stem the tide by devising the perfect anti-bullying policy. The best ones enumerate the categories into which victims often fall, such as race or sexual orientation, and call for training and prevention.
It’s important for schools to have clear and comprehensive anti-bullying policies, of course, but policies that target only the bad behavior will never solve the problem. Abuse ends only when every student feels safe and accepted everywhere in school—in the hallway, the gym, the bathroom and, especially, the classroom. That’s a matter of school climate.
It’s a lesson the Anoka-Hennepin, Minn., school district can’t seem to learn. After a string of student suicides, the district revised its anti-bullying policy to protect LGBT students. Yet it maintains a “sexual orientation curriculum policy”—essentially a gag policy—that prevents teachers from protecting and supporting LGBT students in class.
These approaches are at odds with each other. A school cannot simultaneously say we’re equipping teachers to deal with anti-LGBT bullying and then gag them when it comes to discussing LGBT issues in class. The conflicting policies create uncertainty and fear among educators and isolation for LGBT students.
Anoka-Hennepin’s self-contradictory stance has prompted the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), to send a demand letter calling for change. The groups are representing former students who have suffered under the hostile climate that persists in the district. Their demand letter calls for, among other reforms, a “reconsideration of the total exclusion of issues related to LGBT people from the curriculum.”
Some will say that this is giving LGBT students special rights. But, in fact, the current policy denies them the kind of positive acknowledgment that all students need, and which is denied to no other group. Under the curriculum policy, teachers cannot talk about LGBT figures in history, literature or current events. And they cannot give proper context to issues—like bullying—because they cannot discuss those issues.
Why? Because the district has decided that it can walk some kind of fine line. On one side, it says it’s not okay to bully LGBT people. But on the other side, it panders to those who disapprove of and revile them.
It may be politic to cater to those prejudices, but it’s not right. It’s not right and—more to the point—it’s not constitutional. As the demand letter argues, the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution applies here. The district has “singled out one group of students solely for their membership in an unpopular minority.”
How can Anoka-Hennepin right these wrongs? The first step is to drop the gag policy. Once that’s done, the district needs to provide training for students and staff. That training would focus on ways to prevent bullying based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And finally, the district needs more thoughtful enforcement of anti-bullying policies in general.
The LGBT students in the Anoka-Hennepin district have waited a long time for justice on these matters. As today’s demand letter shows, the time for waiting is over.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.