The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) today demanded that Minnesota's largest school district take immediate action to address the bullying and harassment routinely faced by LGBT students.
In a letter to Anoka-Hennepin School Superintendent Dennis L. Carlson, the groups said they were prepared to file a federal lawsuit to uphold the constitutional rights of LGBT students unless the district took "prompt and meaningful action to remedy the current hostile environment."
The letter includes a demand that the district repeal a gag policy that prevents teachers from discussing issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
"The gag policy serves no legitimate education-related purpose," wrote SPLC attorney Samuel Wolfe and NCLR attorney Shannon Minter. "Rather, as made abundantly clear in the District's own guidance about the policy, the gag policy singles out a vulnerable and disfavored minority – LGBT students – and prevents teachers and other district employees from supporting, or even protecting, those students within the classroom. The mandatory silence imposed by the policy leaves teachers without tools to handle LGBT bullying, and creates an atmosphere in which LGBT students are isolated and feel unprotected."
The letter also states that by singling out LGBT students, the gag policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. "The policy imposes a stigma on LGBT students as pariahs, not fit to be mentioned within the school community, a message that comes across loud and clear both to LGBT students and their peers, and which has grave repercussions for the psychological and emotional development of LGBT students."
Wolfe added, "The gag policy is anything but neutral. It is rooted in homophobia and sustains a hostile environment harmful to all students. The district must repeal this dangerous policy."
An ongoing investigation by the SPLC and NCLR has found that a pervasive atmosphere of hostility in Anoka-Hennepin schools has had dire consequences for LGBT students. Since November 2009, at least four LGBT students in the district have died by suicide Many others have been pushed out of school or experienced emotional and psychological trauma as a result of constant bullying.
The letter cites the experiences of three students:
-- One student faced daily verbal and physical harassment at school because of the perception that she is a lesbian. She reported the harassment to teachers and administrators numerous times, but the only response was an occasional verbal reprimand with no consequences for the harassers. The district took no action, and she eventually dropped out of school and attempted suicide.
-- One student reported chronic harassment to authorities for two years, only to be advised by administrators to leave the school because they could not protect him.
-- A teenager endured years of verbal and physical harassment based on his sexual orientation and perceived gender nonconformity before dropping out of school. In one incident, he was violently assaulted and called "faggot" as a teacher and students stood by.
-- In each of these incidents, school authorities failed to respond to repeated reports of verbal and physical harassment, according to the letter.
"The District is in flagrant violation of its legal and constitutional responsibilities to its students," said NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter. "The unchecked hostility that LGBT students face every day in Anoka-Hennepin's schools has gone on long enough."
In January, the SPLC and NCLR, along with the Minneapolis law firm of Faegre & Benson LLP, brought a lawsuit in federal court for an emergency injunction against the Anoka-Hennepin School District when the district threatened to cancel the traditional royalty court procession for a formal dance at Champlin Park High School to prevent two lesbian students from walking together. That lawsuit was successfully resolved in mediation, and the district agreed to allow the girls to walk together.