The U. S. Justice Department and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights are investigating the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota for alleged abuse and bullying of students who do not conform to gender stereotypes. The school district has experienced a string of seven student suicides in fewer than two years (including 15-year-old Justin Aaberg, whose mother is a Facebook friend of mine and who provided the photo), yet it has refused to implement an anti-gay bullying policy that would seek to specifically protect LGBT students.
Instead, the school division - principally due the efforts of anti-gay "family values" organizations such as affiliates of Focus on the Family and the SPLC registered hate group, the American Family Association - has adopted a policy that purports to be "neutral on the issue of homosexuality."
Earlier this month the anti-gay Alliance Defense Fund sent a letter to the Anoka-Hennepin School District urging it to maintain its "neutrality policy" with regard to sexual orientation.
Of course, in reality, such supposed "neutrality" is, in fact, anti-LGBT because it bars any meaningful discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity. As CNN reports, the problem of faux neutrality is not limited to the Anoka-Hennepin district. Indeed, a number of states have policies that require such alleged neutrality. In Virginia, The Family Foundation, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, has effectively killed every attempt to amend state laws to require meaningful anti-bullying policies that would protect LGBT students and others not conforming to the white, conservative, Christian mold.
And the consequences of blocking any meaningful anti-gay bullying policies are deadly. Just ask Alise Williams, whose son, Christian Taylor, committed suicide on May 31, 2010, after constant bullying because he was perceived as gay by bigoted students. The York County Schools purportedly have an anti-bullying policy, but as seems to be the case time and time again, it is rarely, if ever, enforced.
Here are highlights from CNN's coverage of the Justice Department and Office of Civil Rights investigation:
Federal authorities are investigating "incidents involving harassment and bullying" in Minnesota's largest school district, the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed in an e-mail to CNN.
The civil rights investigation is under way in the suburban Minneapolis school district, Anoka-Hennepin, a community already embattled in a culture war over homosexuality in the classroom.
The Justice Department together with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights are looking into "allegations of harassment and discrimination in the Anoka-Hennepin School District based on sex, including peer-on-peer harassment based on not conforming to gender stereotypes," according to a district memo provided exclusively to CNN.
The federal investigation comes after a string of seven student suicides in less than two years, which stirred public debate over the district's sexual orientation curriculum policy.
Parents and friends say four of those students were either gay, perceived to be gay or questioning their sexuality, and they say, at least two of them were bullied over their sexuality.
It's unclear whether the suicides or the policy are a significant part of the federal investigation. The controversial policy, adopted in 2009, states that staff must "remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation" and that "such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches or community organizations."
Anoka-Hennepin is the only Minnesota school district known to have such a policy. However, at least eight other states - Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah - have statutes specifying varying limits on classroom instruction regarding homosexuality. Tennessee considered similar legislation this year.
In May, two advocacy groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, threatened the school district with a federal lawsuit challenging the policy. So far, negotiations with the school district have not met their demands.
Tammy Aaberg - whose 15-year-old son, Justin, committed suicide last July - has become an outspoken critic of the neutrality policy. "He came to me and said, 'Mom, a kid at school says I'm going to go to hell because I'm gay,'" said Aaberg. The neutrality policy, she said, contributed to a school environment harmful to her son, who was outed in the eighth grade by another student. "I believe that the climate that they have in the school, the way that kids are allowed to treat other kids - they say 'fag' all the time," Aaberg said. "If you're even questioning who you are and you're not seeing anybody who's like you, you don't see anything positive about who you are, then you start wondering, 'What's wrong with me?'"
Sam Wolfe, the Southern Poverty Law Center attorney handling the advocacy group's case, calls the curriculum policy a "gag policy." In May, Wolfe wrote a letter to Carlson stating that students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and those perceived to be LGBT "remain in jeopardy in a hostile and alienating environment."
"The gag policy singles out LGBT students by denying them and them alone any affirmation of their identity," Wolfe wrote in the May 24 letter. He also said the policy "categorically preclud(es) any meaningful classroom discussion about history, literature, current events or any other relevant lessons involving LGBT people."
A similar federal investigation in Tehachapi, California, led to federally mandated revisions of the Tehachapi Unified School District's policies. After investigating a complaint surrounding the suicide of a 13-year-old student, the departments of Justice and Education concluded the eighth grader "suffered sexual and gender-based harassment by his peers, including harassment based on his nonconformity to gender stereotypes" and the school district "did not adequately investigate or respond appropriately as it is required to do by federal law," according to the resolution agreement reached this month between the Tehachapi Unified School District and the federal agencies. Tehachapi district officials disagreed with the investigation's findings.
One can only hope that similar changes will be forced on the Anoka-Hennepin School District.