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Monday, July 25th, 2011
Associated Press



STUDENTS SUE MINNESOTA SCHOOL DISTRICT
OVER GAY BULLYING POLICY
by Steve Karnowski, Associated Press

Kyle Rooker, 14, speaks during a news conference announcing a lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin school district on Thursday, July 21, 2011 in Champlin, Minn. .Several current and former students are suing Minnesota's largest school district, saying its policy requiring staff to remain neutral when sexual orientation is discussed in the classroom prevents teachers from effectively protecting kids perceived as gay from bullying and harassment. The five plaintiffs contend the Anoka-Hennepin School District failed to protect them from severe bullying and harassment, including physical abuse and verbal slurs. Three of the plaintiffs identify themselves as gay or bisexual and two do not. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, David Joles)

CHAMPLIN, Minn. (AP) — Several current and former students sued Minnesota's largest school district Thursday, saying its policy requiring staff to remain neutral when sexual orientation is discussed in the classroom prevents teachers from effectively protecting kids perceived as gay from bullying and harassment.

The five plaintiffs contend the Anoka-Hennepin School District failed to protect them from severe bullying and harassment, including physical abuse and verbal slurs. Three of the plaintiffs identify themselves as gay or bisexual and two do not.

"This policy sends the message to kids that who they are is not OK," said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of two advocacy groups that filed the lawsuit in federal court in Minnesota.

Jeff Frei, a father of six, speaks about how one of his sons has been bullied in the Anoka-Hennepin school district during a news conference outside Jackson Middle School in Champlin, Minn. Thursday, July 21, 2011. Several current and former students sued Minnesota's largest school district Thursday, saying its policy requiring staff to remain neutral when sexual orientation is discussed in the classroom prevents teachers from effectively protecting kids perceived as gay from bullying and harassment. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, David Joles)

The students are asking the court to block the policy, order effective protections including better training and award them unspecified damages.

"For the last three years kids have been calling me names and shoving me into lockers, desks and walls, just because they say I am different," 14-year-old Kyle Rooker, one of the plaintiffs, told reporters outside Jackson Middle School. "It got so bad that every day when the bus would arrive at the school, I would want to hide under the chair so I wouldn't have to go into school, so I wouldn't be called names or be pushed around and so I wouldn't have to hear the rumors other kids were spreading about me."

Sam Wolfe, lead attorney on the case for the center, said his group's efforts over the last 10 months to resolve dispute with the district failed.

Mary Bauer, foreground left, and Sam Wolfe, foreground right, both with the Southern Poverty Law Center, walk to the podium with plaintiffs in a lawsuit and their families for a news conference outside Jackson Middle School in Champlin, Minn. Thursday, July 21, 2011. Several current and former students sued Minnesota's largest school district Thursday, saying its policy requiring staff to remain neutral when sexual orientation is discussed in the classroom prevents teachers from effectively protecting kids perceived as gay from bullying and harassment. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, David Joles)

The policy came under criticism after six students in the district committed suicide in less than two years. A parent of one of those students says her son was bullied for being gay, and gay advocacy groups say some of the other students were also bullied. The district says its internal investigation found no evidence that bullying contributed to the deaths, but it changed its anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies last October.

District spokeswoman Mary Olson said the complaint will take "considerable review" before they can comment on it.

However, Olson took exception to the plaintiffs' claims that the district has refused to take a stand to stop harassment. She said the district's anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies cover sexual orientation, and that staff are instructed to intervene if they see a student being harassed or bullied, no matter the reason. However, she said, student surveys show that bullying usually takes place when adults aren't around. She said it would be more helpful if the groups that filed the lawsuit helped the district to develop training materials instead.

Sam Wolfe of the Southern Poverty Law Center, left, addresses media members while Ilona Turner of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, looks on during a news conference announcing a lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin school district on Thursday, July 21, 2011 in Champlin, Minn. .Several current and former students are suing Minnesota's largest school district, saying its policy requiring staff to remain neutral when sexual orientation is discussed in the classroom prevents teachers from effectively protecting kids perceived as gay from bullying and harassment. The five plaintiffs contend the Anoka-Hennepin School District failed to protect them from severe bullying and harassment, including physical abuse and verbal slurs. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, David Joles)

The district does not consider its neutrality policy a gag order, Olson said. School officials consider it a reasonable way to balance the beliefs of conservative and liberal families in the suburban district north of Minneapolis, she said, adding that staff members also have varying beliefs.

Teachers can discuss sexual orientation as long as it's age-appropriate, fact-based, fits with the curriculum and they don't interject their personal views, Olson said.

"This district calls this a sexual orientation policy but don't let the name fool you. It doesn't bar discussion or acknowledgement of heterosexual people or relationships. It only requires pretending that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people don't exist," said Ilona Turner, staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the other group that filed the lawsuit.

Federal investigators confirmed Wednesday they have been looking into complaints of harassment and bullying in the district. The investigation began last fall. The district said it received a letter about it in November and since then has cooperated with investigators, providing documents and interviews.


Written by Steve Karnowski, Associated Press
Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten , or redistributed.

Photos courtesy of AP Photo/The Star Tribune
Images created by David Joles
Last changed on: 7/25/2011

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