The origins of Anoka-Hennepin’s discrimination controversy
On Tuesday, the New York Times featured a front page article about the Anoka-Hennepin School District and its two-year long struggle to defend policies that limit discussion of LGBT issues in district schools. It’s an issue the Minnesota Independent has covered from the beginning. The following is a full account of the dispute.
In August of 2009, news broke that two teachers were accused of harassing a student they thought was gay, the district paid out a $25,000 settlement. The teachers have maintained their innocence throughout.
The news spurred a demonstration at the August 2009 school board meeting, where students, teachers and staffed raised concerns that this case of harassment was not an isolated incident. From that meeting the Gay Equity Team was born.
In September, the teachers were put on leave by the school district.
A year later, Tammy Aaberg publicly told the story of her son, Justin, who took his own life in July of 2010. There was also controversy over the “sexual orientation policy,” a school board directive that limits discussions of LGBT issues in the classroom, which LGBT advocates say contributes to a hostile environment for students.
The Parents Action League (PAL), a group of conservative Christians, advocated for therapy to turn gay kids straight. The group’s members testified at school board meetings that LGBT kids lead an unhealthy lifestyle and that LGBT issues should be barred from district schools.
The group was at first secretive. When the Minnesota Independent asked who founded the group and if it had any connections to other “pro-family” groups in the state, an unsigned email came back: “We think our website explains very well what we’re about and who founded it—citizens in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.”
When questioned about ways to get more information about the group’s activities, the Independent was told via email, “We do not see your name on our on-line petition. Once you sign the petition, we may be contacting you.” (Emphasis is theirs).
The group also laid out it’s ideology: It wanted the district to “respect traditional family values” and to “provide valid resources for students (and their families) struggling with sexual identity and/or same-sex attraction.” It sought to “ensure that all health curriculum teach healthy sexuality and promote abstinence until marriage.” The group also wanted the district to “promote the Day of Truth” each year, a movement spurred on by conservative Christian activists.
After the Minnesota Independent reported on the PAL, the group shut down their website and removed all anti-LGBT content:
This site is under construction until further notice.
We have never been inundated with so much hate and disdain for a differing viewpoint than that of the pro-gay movement. Our group has NEVER written anything hateful on our site or to any member of the GET [Gay Equity Team] group with whom we strongly disagree. Apparently, tolerance, kindness and decency are only to be extended to the pro-gay viewpoint—talk about your bullying!
In September 2010, LGBT advocates again attended the school board meeting, and the Minnesota Independent asked the district’s spokesperson if the sexual orientation policy covered all sexual orientations or just those that involve gays, lesbians and bisexuals. The district acknowledged that is only targeted at LGBT students.
The Minnesota Family Council accused “homosexual activists” of manipulating Justin Aaberg’s suicide for political gain. The Minnesota Independent reported on those comments—though the Family Council took issue with the characterization. The comments prompted Sen. Al Franken to respond, and Tom Prichard, the group’s president sat down with Anderson Cooper to talk about the Minnesota Family Council’s strong opposition to anti-bullying policies that target LGBT students.
In October 2010, the district announced that it had changed its anti-bullying policy to include sexual orientation. The changes were hailed by parents and staff, but they also added that it did not go far enough in protecting LGBT students.
At a school board meeting that month, Julie Blaha, president of the teachers union told students in the district address: “Your teachers want you to know that we hear you,” Blaha said. “To all our students who are suffering because of bullying and unsupportive schools, your teachers want you to know that we will work to make it better.”
By December’s meeting, heated words were being exchanged between board members and parents during the public comment period. The board had released a statement saying that “based on all the information we’ve been able to gather, none of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying or harassment.”
The parents continued to contend that that simply wasn’t true.
At the end of December, Barb Anderson, a staffer from the Minnesota Family Council who was also a spokesperson for the Parents Action League appeared on the radio program of Americans for the Truth About Homosexuality, which is listed as an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Anderson said that it was LGBT groups’ fault that kids got bullied.
“They are creating an environment where these children that are sexually confused suddenly become affirmed as a homosexual or that they are born that way, and then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death in some cases,” she said. “So, it’s really… They are the ones that are contributing to an atmosphere that can even increase bullying as more kids get into this kind of a lifestyle.”
In January, the school district took heat for attempting to prevent a lesbian couple from participating in the Snow Days coronation. Students had previously walked in as male-female couples, but the school changed the rules to prevent the lesbian couples from walking.
The district relented and the couple was able to participate.
Tempers continued to flare at the March 2011 school board meeting as members of both the Gay Equity Team and the Parent Action League took turns testifying. One woman was even kicked out of the meeting after shouting, “If they are going to hell, I’m going to hell with them!”
By May, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights had threatened to sue the district for its overall policy. “While we appreciate that the District has recently taken some superﬁcial steps to address bullying, our investigation conﬁrms that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (‘LGBT’) students and those perceived as LGBT within the District remain in jeopardy in a hostile and alienating environment,” the groups said in a letter to district officials.
The school district continued to reject efforts to repeal the sexual orientation policy and it gained support from conservative Christian groups. The Alliance Defense Fund, a religious right legal outfit started by Pat Robertson and James Dobson, sent the district a letter as well in June.
Then, in August, the SPLC and NCLR filed suit against the district on behalf of five students and their parents. The lawsuit detailed horrendous taunting and physical abuse by fellow students and inaction by district staff. At the same time, the Department of Justice acknowledged that it was investigating as well.
Reporting by the Minnesota Independent was used as evidence in the complaint including statements made by district staff and Anderson of PAL and MFC.
Several days after the lawsuit was filed, a sixth student came forward alleging serious bullying and joined the lawsuit with the other five.
The district continued to defend its policies throughout August despite harsh criticism by local papers.
Then, the Parents Action League jumped in with a petition to the school board that warned of the “homosexual agenda” and that LGBT people suffer “life-threatening health risks.”
The August school board meeting was a contentious one. PAL brought its petition to the board and spoke out against the “homosexual agenda,” while supporters of LGBT students noted that PAL had hitched its wagon to the Minnesota Family Council.
In late August, the Minnesota Independent profiled the district’s history in the culture war, where conservative Christian activists sought to ban books, teach creationism and remove a transgender woman from a teaching position.
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating civil rights complaints about harassment of the district’s gay students, although conservatives from the Minnesota Family Council told the New York Times that they were mobilizing to oppose any changes to the district’s policy.