Despite Lawsuits, Anti-Gay Parents’ Group Defends ’Neutrality’ Policy

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 26, 2011

Even though the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota faces two lawsuits over anti-gay bullying, a parents' group insists that a so-called "neutrality policy" regarding GLBT issues has served the district well, reported Minnesota online news resource CityPages on Aug. 23.

Nine students in the troubled school district have killed themselves in the last two years, with a number of others having attempted suicide. Teen suicide is so prevalent in the Anoka-Hennepin School District that health authorities in the state have labeled it a "suicide contagion area."

A July 25 Mother Jones article noted that GOP presidential contender Michele Bachmann, whose congressional district includes Anoka-Hennepin, had campaigned against proactive measures to protect GLBT youth in the district's schools, "seeing such initiatives as a way of allowing gays to recruit impressionable youths into an unhealthy and un-Christian lifestyle."

But the health of some gay teens -- and straight teens perceived to be gay -- has suffered without support from peers and mentors, the article suggested, relating the story of Samantha Johnson, a teen in the Anoka-Hennepin District who sought to establish a GSA at her school, Anoka Middle School. The district delayed the implementation of a student-run support group, citing as its reason a lack of certainty about the legality of GSAs.

Meantime, Samantha, whose mother says was heterosexual, was being bullied about her looks and dress. Whether she wore her usual clothing or tried to appear more feminine, the article said, the other students harassed her relentlessly about being a lesbian. In the end, Samantha shot herself with a hunting rifle.

Warning signs had sent her mother to school authorities --but to no avail. The article noted said that Samantha's friends claimed most of the bullying took place out of the sight of school staff and security cameras, but even when staff caught sight of her being harassed they did nothing to stop it. Nor did the volleyball coach contact Samantha's mother when the teen, depressed, stopped showing up for practice.

"If I had known, I would have pulled her out of that school so quick," Samantha's mother said of the things taking place while her daughter was supposedly safe in class. But school officials left her in the dark.

"Samantha's death was among the first in a wave of suicides and attempted suicides that plagued this district for the next two years," the article reported. Some believe that a major contributing factor is a policy referred to locally as "no homo promo," the article said, a policy that had its beginnings in the mid-1990s.

"Back then, after several emotional school board meetings, the district essentially wiped gay people out of the school health curriculum," the article said. "There could be no discussion of homosexuality, even with regard to HIV and AIDS, and the school board adopted a formal policy that stated school employees could not teach that homosexuality was a 'normal, valid lifestyle.' "

In 2009, the district amended that policy to a "neutral" policy that left staff and faculty unsure about what was allowed and what might get them fired. Could they intervene in bullying situations? Could they invite students who seemed troubled to talk openly if they suspected that sexuality was at the root of the problem?

"Both policies were put into place at the behest of conservative religious activists who have been among Bachmann's biggest supporters in the district," the article said. "They include the Minnesota Family Council (MFC), and its local affiliate, the Parents Action League, which has lobbied to put discredited 'reparative therapy' materials in schools."

The City Pages posting noted that the results, seen from outside the school district, look like an unqualified disaster. But that has not caused anti-gay groups in the state to reconsider the policies they promote. Even in the thick of a rash of student suicides that rocked the nation -- a rash in which Anoka-Hennepin seemed to be an epicenter -- the real life needs of teens apparently took a back seat to political grand standing, with a new anti-gay group forming just last year to combat the Anoka Middle School GSA that eventually did take form.

"The policy has gotten the Anoka-Hennepin School District sued twice now, with the families of six students filing lawsuits through either the Southern Poverty Law Center of the National Center for Lesbian Rights," the City Pages article said. "It's also brought the district under investigation from the U.S. Justice Department and the Department of Education."

The bullying that reportedly goes on in the school district is not confined to gays. Straight students who find themselves labeled as gay are also marked for relentless harassment -- sometimes not just by students, but also by school staff, as in the case of a heterosexual student named Alex Merritt. Making things worse was the manner in which two teachers reportedly tag-teamed the abuse they directed the Merritt.

The young man was reportedly subjected to public and humiliating comments made by teacher Diane Cleveland, who allegedly made jokes about the student's perceived sexuality in front of the class. Among other allegations, Cleveland reportedly remarked that the student had a "thing for older men" when Merritt handed in a report about Benjamin Franklin, and joked during a screening of a movie in which a bathing suit scene took place that the sight of a scantily clad young woman on screen would not mean anything to him. "It's OK if [Alex] watches this, because he isn't into that sort of thing anyway," Cleveland reportedly said, allegedly adding, "maybe if it was a guy."

"Would you like to have [another student] go with you so he can sit in the stall next to you and stomp his foot?" Cleveland alleged asked Merritt when the young man requested permission to go to the restroom. The other student named by Cleveland was reportedly also perceived as being gay.

Merritt reportedly had Cleveland's class just prior to lunch, after which he had a class with Walker Filson, the other instructor who allegedly subject Merritt to ongoing and public humiliation. Filson would reportedly pick up the day's torments where Cleveland left off. On one occasion, Filson allegedly told students searching for participants for a fashion show to "Take [Alex] because he enjoys wearing women's clothes."

Filson allegedly added, "He would love to be in the show."

A suit brought by Merritt's family cost the school district $25,000 when the case was settled out of court. The teachers involved faced mild disciplinary action.

The two lawsuits referenced by City Pages have been filed since the district's settlement with Merritt, and are pending. But despite the loss of life and lawsuits that have already cost the district thousands, and could cost thousands more, some parents see it as worthwhile, if it keeps discussion (or even recognition) of gays and the problems they face from entering the classroom.

Anti-gay groups in several states have resorted to arguments that anti-bullying efforts would constitute a form of "indoctrination" imposed on students who have no choice but to attend class. Those arguments seem to be rooted in a belief that exposure to gays (or the idea of gays) might turn some teens into homosexuals, even though there is no evidence that homosexuality is contagious or, for that matter, a pathological condition. To the contrary, what evidence exists suggests that human sexuality, while complex and even fluid to some degree is innate and cannot be changed -- and that gays fall within the natural range of human sexual orientation.

"But forget about all that," the City Pages article said. " PAL [the Parents Action League] has signatures!" The group attended a school board meeting on the evening of Aug. 22, armed with a petition to maintain the current "neutrality" policy.

"Academic instruction is sacrificed when indoctrination of specific viewpoints come into the classroom," declared a representative of the group, Laurie Thompson, who presented a petition with just over one thousand signatures to keep the policy in place.

The article noted that a signature to repeal the neutrality policy had been submitted previously to the board, and that petition had 12,000 signatures. Thompson, the article said, addressed that earlier petition by saying that many of those who signed it have little stake in the issue because they do not reside in the district.

Thompson also said that when the current version of the policy was adopted, in 2009, a prominent GLBT equality advocate had pressed for its adoption.

But that equality advocate, Outfront Minnesota's Phil Duran, told City Pages that he had not actually supported the part of the policy that called for neutrality. Rather, Duran said, he foresaw -- and issued a warning about -- problems that would arise.

"When the district put together the neutrality language, we told them two and a half years ago, that's going to be a problem," Duran told City Pages. "We told them two and a half years ago; you're going to get sued. Now they are getting sued, just like we told them," Duran added.

"Duran said he communicated his concern about that line to school board member Scott Wenzel and the district's general counsel in 2009, but was ignored," the City Pages article said. "Outfront still supported enacting the policy in 2009, Duran said, because the 1995 policy it was replacing was 'deeply, deeply problematic.' "

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.