Thirteen months ago, Rolling Stone Magazine published a lengthy feature article under the following headline: "One Town's War on Gay Teens."
It's a tough read, and it put an unflinching spotlight on Anoka, Minn., portraying the Anoka-Hennepin school district as cruelly and deliberately indifferent regarding the bullying that was being endured by students who were gay or were treated as if they were.
Nine students from the district had committed suicide during a two-year span, and at least four of them were gay or had been perceived as gay and, as such, had been bullied. Faculty could intervene if they witnessed bullying, but the district's so-called "neutrality" policy left teachers uncertain as to whether they could tell the bullies — or the victims — that it was OK to be a gay student in an Anoka-Hennepin school.
Less than one month after the magazine article was published, Anoka-Hennepin settled a federal lawsuit filed by six students. The district agreed to a lump-sum payment of $270,000 to the students and set strict anti-bullying standards. Superintendent Dennis Carlson declared, "When we have finished this process, we believe we will have developed a model that all school districts can follow."
To his credit, Carlson appears to have been true to his word. Teachers and staff have been trained to report discrimination that is based on sexual orientation, and the attorney who filed the lawsuit against the district in 2011 said, in the past year, "I am personally unaware of any incident of anti-LGBT harassment at this point."
The teacher (we won't call her a whistle-blower) whose phone call triggered the lawsuit described the change in atmosphere as "a little magical."
That's fantastic, but at this point, we feel compelled to remind Minnesotans of one crucial point: Not all bullying is related to sexual identity.
That fact is evident in anti-bullying legislation introduced by Minnesota Sen. Scott Dibble, a DFLer from Minneapolis. His massive "Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act," which is this year's attempt to overhaul the state's woefully inadequate, 37-word anti-bullying statute, describes bullying as "discriminatory conduct based on a person's actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, creed, religion, national origin, immigration status, sex, marital status, familial status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, academic status, disability, or status with regard to public assistance, age, or any additional characteristic."
Kids are bullied because they're poor, or obese, or Muslim. They're bullied because they're "new," too pretty, have acne or a learning disability. They're bullied because they are short or wear glasses. They're bullied because their parents can't speak English, or because they get perfect scores on every math test.
Disagreeing on diversity
But the battle over Dibble's legislation appears to hinge on its encouragement (not a requirement) that school districts "provide developmentally appropriate programmatic instruction" that will help students "value diversity in school and society."
Not everyone values diversity — or at least certain types of diversity. Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, has been a constant critic of Dibble's bill. He argues, rather than focusing on bullying, the bill advocates "diversity and changing beliefs and attitudes in our schools."
Prichard doesn't want beliefs and attitudes to change, and he certainly doesn't want teachers to talk about homosexuality even in neutral terms, let alone espouse tolerance of it.
He's not alone. Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Republican from Mazeppa, has introduced a bill that would require a school district's anti-bullying policy to specifically allow students to "express a religious, philosophical, moral or political viewpoint to the extent that the student's expression does not materially disrupt the learning environment." You don't have to be an expert at reading between the lines to infer Drazkowski wants to protect one student's right to (politely) tell another that his/her sexual orientation, religion or political views are wrong.
We'd ask Drazkowski (politely, of course): If that person bursts into tears or stands up and shouts an angry response to their critic, who will be blamed for the "material disruption" of the learning environment?
It's sad something as important as anti-bullying legislation has been pigeon-holed into a debate about whether it's possible to teach tolerance without "putting ideas into the head" of a 13-year-old or interfering with a parent's right to shape a child's moral beliefs.
But that's where we are.
So here's our take: Teaching tolerance is complicated because it implies advocacy, sending the message that it's OK to be "different." Under Dibble's bill, parents, faculty and school boards would decide how far an individual district will go with that message — or if they want to convey that message at all.
Dibble's bill, however, requires schools to be proactive against intolerant conduct. Students can't be forced to welcome the racial, religious and sexual diversity of their classmates, but they can be told — repeatedly and starting in elementary school — that in school, on the bus, on the playground, online or at school-sponsored events, they can't criticize, mock or otherwise torment people who aren't like themselves.
In other words, students must be told, "You don't have to like your classmates or their lifestyle choices, but your right to freedom of speech ends at the point where you begin interfering with another student's right to be left alone as they learn."
Those are 37 words to live by.