Last weekend, the Southern Poverty Law Center and two partners struck a legal agreement with the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota. Amid revolution in Egypt and fears of a monster snowstorm in the Midwest, this was hardly top-shelf news.
But the agreement really was a big deal for LGBT students. First off, it made life easier for two young women, Sarah Lindstrom and Desiree "Dez" Shelton at Champlin Park High School. Sarah and Dez were voted in as “royalty” for the school’s Snow Days winter event. That meant they would walk together in the event’s procession. School officials objected. With SPLC’s help, the deal struck over the weekend removed that objection. Sarah and Dez went to Snow Days earlier this week as originally planned.
That sounds like simple justice, and it is. But it’s the kind of justice that’s been denied many gay and lesbian teenagers. Had the school district been less agreeable, Sarah and Dez might well have shared the fate of Constance McMillen. Last year, Constance tried to take her female date to prom only to be met with unyielding opposition by her school in Fulton, Miss.
Remember, too, that Anoka-Hennepin is not just another school district. It is the largest in Minnesota and one with a poor track record lately on LGBT issues. Two years ago, two district teachers were disciplined for harassing a student over his "perceived sexual orientation." And since then, at least four LGBT students from the district have committed suicide after reporting harassment and bullying.
In the wake of those suicides, Anoka-Hennepin adopted an anti-bullying policy that specifically protects students from harassment based on sexual orientation. However, the district has refused to alter a controversial policy that hamstrings teachers, often called the “neutrality policy.” It states that staff members “shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions.”
As Elie Weisel reminds us, “Neutrality always helps the oppressor, never the victim.” The neutrality policy places a huge obstacle in the way of the anti-bullying policy by creating confusion and making teachers hesitant to advocate for LGBT students. LGBT students cannot be bullied, but they are robbed of the teacher allies they badly need.
Last weekend’s agreement did not resolve all these issues. But it injected some hope into a previously contentious situation. The agreement’s a start that both the school district and LGBT students can build on. Teenagers at Champlin Park voted for Sarah and Dez knowing full well they were lesbians. That indicates a strong level of acceptance. Perhaps their attitudes are finally filtering upward to those who run the schools.
Price is managing editor of Teaching Tolerance.