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Minnesota school district warned to repeal discriminatory gag policy, address anti-gay harassment

SAN FRANCISCO – Two human rights groups sent a letter today to Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District demanding that district officials immediately repeal the gag policy that prevents teachers from discussing LGBT issues, and address the bullying and harassment of LGBT students.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sent the warning letter.

“The gag policy serves no legitimate education-related purpose. 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 said.

The letter also states that the gag policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“This fundamental constitutional guarantee prohibits school district officials from singling out any group of students for disfavored treatment based solely on their membership in an unpopular minority,” the letter said. “The gag policy singles out LGBT students by denying them and them alone any affirmation of their identity and by categorically precluding any meaningful classroom discussion about history, literature, current events, or any other relevant lessons involving LGBT people. 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.”

The letter was prompted after a number of present and past district students requested that SPLC and NCLR investigate the pervasive harassment they have experienced based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender expression at district schools. The ongoing investigation has found that the gag policy contributes significantly to the lack of safety of LGBT students and students perceived as LGBT within the district.

The investigation revealed that numerous students throughout the district have faced severe bullying based on their sexual orientation or gender expression, which school officials either ignored or responded to ineffectively. Just a few examples include:

• 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, including the vice principal and the principal, 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 after the constant harassment became too much to bear.

• Another student reported chronic anti-LGBT harassment to authorities for two years, only to be advised by administrators to leave the school because they could not protect him.

• One 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 every one of these incidents, and many others, district authorities failed to properly respond to repeated reports of verbal and physical harassment, in violation of their legal obligations,” the letter said. “These incidents and others like them appear to be part of a pervasive pattern of hostility against LGBT students within district schools, which has had dire consequences. Many LGBT students have been pushed out of the district altogether; many have experienced emotional and psychological scars as a result of constant bullying.”

Most tragically, the letter reports that since November 2009, at least four LGBT students in the district have died by suicide.

“The district is in flagrant violation of its legal and constitutional responsibilities to its students,” NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter said. “The unchecked hostility that LGBT students face every day in Anoka-Hennepin’s schools has gone on long enough. The discriminatory gag policy must be repealed, and the district must take serious steps to address and prevent anti-LGBT bullying before one more student is pushed out of school or pushed to the brink of despair.”

"The gag policy is anything but neutral,” said Sam Wolfe, lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It is rooted in homophobia and sustains a hostile environment harmful to all students. The district must repeal this dangerous policy."

The letter calls for the prompt repeal of the gag policy and immediate action to address and prevent the bullying of LGBT students and those perceived as LGBT. The letter warns the district that without meaningful action to remedy the current hostile environment, the organizations intend to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of their clients against the district.

In January 2011, NCLR and SPLC, 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 the Snow Days winter formal dance at Champlin Park High School in order to prevent two lesbian students, Dez Shelton and Sarah Lindstrom, from walking together. That lawsuit was successfully resolved in mediation and the district agreed to allow the girls to walk together.