By Richard Cohen, President
Recently, Minnesota’s largest school district was beset by tragedy.
A string of student suicides – some likely related to anti-gay bullying, according to community advocates – had rocked the Anoka-Hennepin School District. When several other student suicides made headlines across the country in September, it only underscored the urgent need to address the rampant anti-gay bullying and prejudice in our schools.
Inaction or denial would only invite more tragedy.
That’s why the Southern Poverty Law Center traveled to Minnesota last fall. We met with community members about the situation. And when we hosted a screening of our new documentary, Bullied, more than 2,000 people gathered for the event in Minneapolis.
People are deeply worried about what is happening in the school district – and for good reason. School officials have not been realistically addressing anti-gay bigotry and harassment.
The district’s curriculum policy instructs teachers to remain “neutral” on matters regarding sexual orientation, but that’s not what’s been happening. In reality, the fear of being at odds with this policy has prevented teachers from standing firm against bullying, regardless of the anti-bullying policies in place.
Teachers are silenced.
Students are targeted.
And we shouldn’t be surprised by the devastation that follows.
Quite simply, this “neutrality” policy is neutral in theory, one-sided in fact and dangerous in practice. You need only to look at recent events at Champlin Park High School to understand the point.
Desiree Shelton and Sarah Lindstrom were elected by their classmates to serve on the school’s “Snow Days” royalty court. Traditionally, the chosen students walk as couples during a processional. Desiree and Sarah wanted to participate as a same-sex couple, but school officials made changes to the event to prevent them from walking together.
It was a stunning display of hypocrisy for a school district that’s supposedly “neutral” in matters regarding sexual orientation. Officials had plenty of hollow excuses and empty reasons for their decision. But the real reason was obvious: They were bowing to bigotry.
Rather than stand up to it – and support the decision of the students – they surrendered.
When any form of bigotry gains a foothold in a community, we must act. That’s why the SPLC – along with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the law firm Faegre & Benson – filed a lawsuit on behalf of the young women. Less than 24 hours later, we had reached a settlement agreement with school officials.
As a result, Desiree and Sarah walked hand-in-hand as a couple to the cheers of their classmates.
The school and the district deserve a lot of credit for doing the right thing in the end. But possibly the most encouraging aspect of this incident – and for the future of this community – was the response of the student body. At a high school in a district that has seen so much tragedy, students overwhelmingly supported the rights of their lesbian classmates. They looked at these two young women and saw fellow students they wanted to honor as school “royalty.” They saw two people deserving dignity, respect and, yes, even the right to walk together into an assembly as a couple.
And when it looked as if their classmates would be denied, the students didn’t follow the example of school officials and bow to the pressure of prejudice. They banded together, carried posters and took a stand for their classmates.
As one student told a reporter: “We’re a pretty respectful school. Our rule is just let people be who they are.”
And that’s hope for the future.