Homosexual behaviour is prohibited and can lead to the death penalty
Homosexual behaviour is prohibited and can lead to the death penalty Reuters

A Minnesota school district that came to crystallize a national debate about anti-gay bullying has agreed to institute broad new protections for students.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district, Minnesota's largest, has been coping with the fallout from several suicides of gay teens who had endured taunts and harassment from classmates. Critics pointed to a since-discarded policy that prohibited teachers from discussing homosexuality in the classroom.

On Monday, the district settled a lawsuit brought by six students last summer with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights. The students, who charged that the district had failed to protect them and their peers from bullying, will receive $270,000.

New Safeguards

The district also agreed to institute new safeguards, including fortifying mental health resources and hiring a full time harassment prevention official. The federal Department of Justice and Department of Education will monitor the district for five years to ensure compliance.

Harassment by or against students in schools is unacceptable, and not a 'rite of passage' to be endured by anyone, Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice's civil rights division, said in a statement issued Monday.

The issue has been deeply polarizing in Anoka-Hennepin. Conservative pro-family groups have argued that preaching tolerance of homosexuality is tantamount to encouraging an immoral lifestyle.

Making schools safe for 'gay' kids means indoctrinating impressionable, young minds with homosexual propaganda, Laurie Thompson, a spokesperson for the Parent's Action League, wrote in an e-mail to Minneapolis Star Tribune.

That viewpoint was instrumental in formulating a policy dictating that teachers remain neutral and that homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle. That policy was in place during the rash of suicides, and teachers told Rolling Stone that their mandated silence on the matter contributed to a gay stigma.

If you can't talk about it in any context, which is how teachers interpret district policies, kids internalize that to mean that being gay must be so shameful and wrong, Anoka High School teacher Mary Jo Merrick-Lockett told Rolling Stone. And that has created a climate of fear and repression and harassment.

New Approach: Emphasizes Dignity, Self-Worth

The district voted 5-1 in February to replace the neutrality policy with one saying that teachers should navigate contentious issues by affirming the dignity and self-worth of students. The new policy also discourages teachers from advocating any particular viewpoint.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., an Anoka High School graduate whose district encompasses part of Anoka-Hennepin, responded to constituents urging her to take a stand on gay bullying by saying that bullying is wrong. Bachmann didn't specifically mention homosexuality, and she had more fully articulated a different position when she spoke out against an anti-gay bullying bill in 2006.

I think for all us our experience in public schools is there have always been bullies, always have been, always will be, Bachmann told the Minnesota legislature at the time. I just don't know how we're ever going to get to point of zero tolerance and what does it mean?...What will be our definition of bullying? Will it get to the point where we are completely stifling free speech and expression? Will it mean that what form of behavior will there be-will we be expecting boys to be girls?