The Minnesota school district under investigation for how it handles bullying is largely contained within Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s congressional district.
A series of events preceded the U.S. Department of Education’s office of civil rights investigation, which began last fall. Two years ago, Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district created a policy that says if the subject of sexual orientation comes up in class, teachers must take a neutral stance on the topic. That policy was followed by a complaint by a parent that two teachers had harassed her son because they thought he was gay.The 40,000-student school district eventually paid $25,000 to settle a lawsuit over the matter.
In a front-page story this week, the New York Times noted the crossover between the school district and Ms. Bachmann’s congressional district and that 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.”
Between 2009 and 2010, at least seven students in the district committed suicide. After some of the deaths, Anoka-Hennepin’s superintendent, Dennis Carlson, sent teachers a voice mail message saying none of the suicides had to do with bullying.
In July, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups sued the district on behalf of five current and former students, with the goal of having the district repeal its curriculum policy on sexual orientation. That suit says at least four of the students who committed suicide were gay.
“The gag policy,” the suit says, “also prohibits school staff from countering anti-gay stereotypes or presenting basic factual information about [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered] people, even when necessary to address anti-gay hostility within the student body.”
This is at least the second investigation by the federal office of civil rights since it sent school districts letters outlining their responsibilities in cases of bullying.
Colleen Cashen, a psychologist and counselor at the Northdale Middle School, told the Times 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.”
Now, the school district’s website prominently displays a link to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered issues, training and awareness.
However the change in the district’s attitude is unwelcome by the conservative group that Ms. Bachmann belongs to.
“Saying that you should accept two moms as a normal family—that would be advocacy,” said Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, told the Times. “There should be no tolerance of bullying, but these groups are using the issue to try to press a social agenda.”