Seven suicides within two years at one suburban school district outside Minneapolis has enflamed a culture war between teachers, parents, and national interest groups in regards to the district's policy of leaving the discussion on homosexuality outside of the classroom.
A clip from a CNN special on the events to air tonight:
The Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a federal lawsuit against Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools last week in regards to the district's "curricular neutrality" about LGBT issues, and the U.S. departments of justice and education have announced formal investigations into the policy.
"Sam Wolfe, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the advocacy groups behind the federal lawsuit, wrote the district a letter in May, saying the 'gag policy' prevented 'meaningful' classroom discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people."
CNN reports that parents and friends say that four of the seven dead students in Anoka were either gay, perceived to be gay or questioning their sexuality, and they say at least two of them were bullied over their sexuality.
The official district policy states that:
"Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations. Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions. If and when staff address sexual orientation, it is important that staff do so in a respectful manner that is age-appropriate, factual, and pertinent to the relevant curriculum. Staff are encouraged to take into consideration individual student needs and refer students to the appropriate social worker or licensed school counselor."
The seemingly rational policy has been criticized by some outside the district and even some teachers within it. Jefferson Fietek, an openly gay middle school theater teacher at Anoka, advisor for the neutral school's Gay-Straight Alliance, and participant in the school's anti-bullying hotline, spoke to CNN despite saying it "could cost him his job."
"'I'm worried and concerned about the kids in my school district who are struggling to navigate in a toxic environment,' explained Fietek, who said talking to CNN could cost him his job as a theater teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts in Anoka-Hennepin.
The suburban Minneapolis school district, he said, has a climate where kids 'feel they have to lie and cover up who they are.'
'If they're a kid that's questioning their identity, that they have to hide that,' he said. 'If there's a girl that's too masculine and is being harassed about that, or if there's a boy that's too feminine, [they're] just not feeling a collective support.'"
Fietek answers the texts and Facebook posts of suicidal teens questioning their sexuality. CNN states that Fietek has reason to worry, pointing to studies that show since the 1990s gay and lesbian youth consistently have suicide attempt rates at least twice that of their heterosexual peers.
The school's superintendent defends the neutrality policy as a reasonable response to a divided community, and points to the district's comprehensive bullying prohibition policy as a means to try and protect students of any sexual orientation who feel harassed. The district "strongly disagrees" that there is a link between the harassment of LGBT students and their neutrality policy.
Do you agree with groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights that say the "policy imposes a stigma on LGBT students as pariahs, not fit to be mentioned within the school community," or many district parents who believe they "have the right to raise their children any way they want to, and the school district doesn't need to be sitting there saying, 'Your parents are wrong.'"