Minnesota’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin has been the subject of a flood of headlines over the last couple of weeks concerning its policy of “curricular neutrality” regarding homosexuality. After negotiations with district administrators failed, the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court here alleging civil-rights violations. Simultaneously, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice announced investigations into the district’s conduct toward LGBT staff and students.
Friday, this space carried an interview with Julie Blaha, president of Education Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools local. I wanted readers to hear from Blaha because amid the din, precious little has been said about how “neutrality” looks to individual educators trying to do right in the classroom.
And over the weekend, CNN carried a lengthy piece on the controversies that featured plenty of video of Superintendent Dennis Carlson, but also plenty of comments from students, parents and faculty who condemn the policy.
Today, then, I think it’s fitting to share a couple of perspectives from district administrators. What follows are two recent communications from Anoka-Hennepin’s media liaisons. The first is a statement regarding the failed negotiations with the two public-interest law firms, the second a letter introducing a portion of the district’s website that lays out actions taken to train staff and address community concerns.
I haven’t edited the statements, and offer only one comment. The first statement makes reference to an investigation of bullying claims conducted by a law firm retained by the district which “found the district’s response was prompt, reasonable and appropriate in each case.”
Administrators brought this up in an e-mail to me earlier this year complaining that I and other local journalists had erroneously reported that several student suicides were alleged to be bullying related. In reply, I sent a formal state Data Practices Act request for any records relating to the investigation or to complaints, formal or informal, received by anyone associated with the district. Several weeks later, I received a short, formal reply stating that there were no pertinent records.
I am curious how, if there was in fact a full investigation leading in some cases to suspensions, there were no records that fell within the scope of my request — no report of an investigation, no record of interviews conducted with the parents and friends of suicide victims. I’ll copy today’s post to the administrators who fielded my data request, but I won’t be surprised if this seeming contradiction isn’t unraveled until the newly filed lawsuit enters its discovery phase.
In the meantime, the official version:
Support, not litigation, is the best path to aiding GLBT students in Anoka-Hennepin
The Anoka-Hennepin School District has asked the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) to provide assistance in developing additional employee training to support GLBT students. The district is currently in collaborative discussions with the federal Department of Justice and the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights over the need for additional employee and student training on GLBT issues. SPLC and NCLR have access to resources that could support the district’s joint effort with the Department of Justice and the Office of Civil Rights.
“We believe the interests of our students would be better served if we could put our energies and resources into working together to develop materials that directly support students,” said Carlson. “Rather than focusing on litigation we would prefer to invest in materials that would provide a positive outcome for students for years to come.” Specifically, a new training program and a best-practices video on LGBT issues would equip staff to support LGBT students. These materials also could be shared with districts across the country.
This invitation is in response to a threat from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) to bring a lawsuit against the district unless the school board eliminates its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy.
The Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy allows discussion of sexual orientation in a respectful manner that is age appropriate, factual and related to the curriculum and it asks that while teaching in the classroom staff “remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation.”
The school board feels the policy is appropriate for the community and is not changing the policy at this time. With respect to GLBT issues, “our community is split and opinions vary widely,” said Carlson. “We are committed to following the law and appreciate the guidance of the Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights. SPLC and NCLR could support these efforts without harmful litigation.”
The district’s Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy is constitutional. The Supreme Court has recognized that public school officials have a valid interest in taking neutral positions on matters of public controversy.
In a letter to the district threatening the lawsuit, SPLC and NCLR alleged the district had failed to take action regarding five current and former students who were harassed and bullied due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
The district took those allegations very seriously and retained an outside law firm to conduct an extensive investigation of each situation. The investigation found the district’s response was prompt, reasonable and appropriate in each case. When the initial complaints were registered, staff investigated and gave appropriate consequences, including suspension. Due to data privacy laws, victims and their families are not always made aware of the discipline given to offenders.
“Our highest priority is ensuring that all of our students feel safe in school, free from bullying and harassment of any kind,” said Carlson.
Anoka-Hennepin is a public school system and we accept every student regardless of real or perceived sexual orientation. The district takes seriously the issues of bullying and student safety. The district was a leader in the state in establishing anti-bully policies, and we are dedicated to communicating with our staff, students and parents on these important issues.
To help answer questions about actions taken by the district in the areas of training and support, as well as provide the Harassment, Violence and Discrimination, Bullying Prohibition, and Sexual Orientation Curriculum policies, the district has established a web page you can access by going to www.anoka.k12.mn..us/glbt. It is also currently featured on the front of our website.
The district is committed to emphasizing to staff the importance of addressing bullying and harassment and empowering students to prevent bullying.