On Friday, the California State Senate approved Seth’s Law (AB 9), a bill designed to crack down on the harassment of LGBT students in the state’s schools.
Named after the 13-year old Seth Walsh, the gay junior high student who took his own life last year after facing constant harassment from bullies at his school in Tehachapi, California, the bill was authored by State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano.
AB 9 would ensure that every school in California implements updated anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and programs that include actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, as well as race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, disability, and religion. It would also empower students and parents to know what their rights are and how to advocate for them.
“I want to thank my colleagues in the Senate for taking this important step forward to ensuring that schools have the necessary tools to prevent any young person from being bullied, harassed or worse because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression,” said Ammiano in a press release. “As a former teacher, I know how important it is for our students to feel safe at school. We have a moral duty to our youth to prevent bullying and Seth’s Law will help schools protect students, and prevent and respond to bullying before a tragedy occurs.”
Under current law, requirements are vague, and only some schools address complaints of bullying. Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, says that means the bill will help combat a troubling trend: 80% of gay students nationwide report that school employees do little or nothing to stop antigay behavior when they witness it.
In a recent study by the California Safe Schools Coalition found that nearly half of of California students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual have been the victims of gender-based harassment—that number jumps to over 60 percent for transgender students.
PINE CITY, Minn (Reuters) – Barb Schroeder knew about her son Alec’s struggles as an openly gay freshman in rural Minnesota’s Mora High School. But she didn’t know about the knife.
Classmates called Alec names and pushed him around inside a portable bathroom during a homecoming football game in 2005.
“I would take a knife out, hold it and think about how quick it would be, and how I wouldn’t have to go to school tomorrow and deal with that,” recalled Alec Schroeder, now 20.
Alec’s mother transferred him to a different school district in Minnesota, a state which has become a flash point in the battle over gay rights — and not just because of the proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and woman that will go before voters on the 2012 ballot.
The Anoka-Hennepin school district, the state’s largest, was sued in July by the Southern Poverty Law Center and The National Center for Lesbian Rights for what the groups call the district’s “gag” or “neutral” policy limiting teachers from defending or advocating gay rights.
The district just outside of Minneapolis is represented by Republican U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, a presidential contender whose husband owns a counseling business that has sought to “cure” homosexuals.
It is also located in what state health officials have declared a “suicide contagion” area because of higher than average numbers of suicides and suicide attempts.
Activists say gay teens account for an out-sized number of deaths and blame the district’s “curricular neutrality” on gay issues, which critics say leads to marginalization and bullying by banning classroom discussion on the issues.
Anoka-Hennepin’s superintendent, Dennis Carlson, defended the district’s policies in a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial, saying the district is not homophobic.
“We are advocates for all students,” wrote Carlson, who added that sexual orientation can be discussed in class if it’s “age-appropriate, fact-based and connected to curriculum.”
Gay activists say the problems for gay teens in Minnesota go beyond Anoka-Hennepin. In a 2009 survey, 84 percent of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in Minnesota said they had been harassed or assaulted in the past year due to their sexual orientation, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Minnesota was in line with the national average in terms of the number of respondents saying they heard derogatory comments such as “dyke” or “faggot” from other students. But where the state stood out was in homophobic remarks directed at students by adults — in that category, the state came in at more than four times higher than the national average.
“Unfortunately, it paints a very difficult picture,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of New York-based GLSEN.
In Pine City, north of Minneapolis, city planner Nathan Johnson, 33, remembers hearing “faggot” and “that’s so gay” from both students and teachers when he was at Pine City High School in the mid-1990s.
“That was really prevalent as I think is true in a lot of high schools,” said Johnson. “It resonated with me.”
Things have changed at Mora High School since Alec Schroeder attended. The district, located 70 miles north of Anoka-Hennepin, amended its harassment policy to include sexual orientation, calling violations of it an affront to the U.S. Civil Rights Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
Mora Public Schools Superintendent Craig Schultz said in an e-mail, “Harassment, that I am made aware of, of any kind, is not will not be tolerated during my tenure with Mora Schools. This is my personal philosophy.”
Schroeder remembers his time at Mora before the new harassment policy as “scary.”
His mother said she now thinks, “If we didn’t take him out of there, I truly believe it wouldn’t have ended well.”
Alec Schroeder said he put up with the bullying because he was a teenager confused by conflicting emotions.
“You thought that you deserved it because no one else was that way,” said Schroeder.
“As you get older, you accept it and realize that you aren’t the only one,” said Schroeder, who is now working toward a nursing degree and performing in theater.
Anoka, Minnesota (CNN) — Late at night, long after class is dismissed, middle school teacher Jefferson Fietek logs on for his night shift: answering the texts and Facebook posts of suicidal teens.
Fietek, an adviser for his school’s Gay-Straight Alliance in Anoka, Minnesota, says he gets messages from students contemplating suicide or those with friends in crisis at least once a week.
Some of the distressed kids are gay, others are questioning their sexuality, he said. Fietek’s off-duty interventions may blur the line between teacher and friend, but Fietek, who’s openly gay, said some of these kids have no one else to turn to for support.
“I’m worried and concerned about the kids in my school district who are struggling to navigate in a toxic environment,” explained Fietek, who said talking to CNN could cost him his job as a theater teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts in Anoka-Hennepin.
The suburban Minneapolis school district, he said, has a climate where kids “feel they have to lie and cover up who they are.”
“If they’re a kid that’s questioning their identity, that they have to hide that,” he said. “If there’s a girl that’s too masculine and is being harassed about that, or if there’s a boy that’s too feminine, [they’re] just not feeling a collective support.”
Fietek has reason to worry. Studies since the 1990s consistently show gay and lesbian youth have suicide attempt rates at least twice that of their heterosexual peers.
And Fietek has seen more than his share of students hospitalized and even buried.
A string of seven student suicides district-wide in less than two years has stirred public debate over Anoka-Hennepin’s sexual orientation curriculum policy.
Parents and friends say four of those students were either gay, perceived to be gay or questioning their sexuality, and they say, at least two of them were bullied over their sexuality.
The district’s curriculum policy, adopted in 2009, bars teachers from taking a position on homosexuality in the classroom and says such matters are best addressed outside of school. It’s become known as the neutrality policy. Anoka-Hennepin is the only Minnesota school district known to have such a policy.
“It’s a censorship policy,” Fietek said. “It’s censorship. There’s nothing neutral about taking the side of the oppressor.”
Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson says the policy — which has attracted just as many local supporters as it has critics to heated school board meetings — is a reasonable response to a divided community.
“It’s a diverse community,” said Carlson, “and what we’re trying to do, what I’m trying to do as a superintendent is walk down the middle of the road.”
The school district has a separate, comprehensive bullying prohibition policy, and Carlson said there is no link between the suicides and bullying.
“We have no evidence that bullying or harassment took place in any of those cases,” the superintendent said.
Carlson emphasized students need to report bullying, and he acknowledged “gay students in our district struggle with bullying and harassment on a daily basis.”
What started out as community members clashing at school board meetings is now a full-blown culture war over homosexuality.
Advocates of gay rights filed a federal lawsuit last week against the district challenging the neutrality policy.
In response to the lawsuit, the school district said it is “confident” that they are “complying with the law” and that its policies, practices and procedures ensure the safety of students.
And CNN confirmed, the Departments of Justice and Education have an ongoing civil rights investigation into incidents of bullying and harassment in the school district after receiving a complaint.
“The Department is committed to investigating allegations to determine whether there are violations of federal civil rights laws and will use the enforcement tools at our disposal to protect the safety of students,” wrote a Justice Department spokeswoman in an email to CNN.
It’s unclear whether the federal investigation will go beyond investigating the bullying complaint.
The party who filed the complaint to the federal authorities remains confidential due to privacy concerns.
Sam Wolfe, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the advocacy groups behind the federal lawsuit, wrote the district a letter in May, saying the “gag policy” prevented “meaningful” classroom discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
“The policy imposes a stigma on LGBT students as pariahs, not fit to be mentioned within the school community,” Wolfe wrote, “a message that comes across loud and clear both to LGBT students and their peers, and which has grave repercussions for the psychological and emotional development of LGBT students.”
In response to those allegations, the school district wrote a letter to the SPLC, stating the district “strongly disagrees” that there is a link between the harassment of LGBT students and the neutrality policy.
The district’s letter also disputes that the policy prohibits classroom discussion of LGBT issues, and states rather that it prevents teachers from injecting their personal beliefs on homosexuality in the classroom.
Last week, the district asked the advocacy groups to help them develop employee training to support LGBT students but stopped short of meeting their demands to repeal its policy.
“We believe the interests of our students would be better served if we could put our energies and resources into working together to develop materials that directly support students,” said Carlson in a press release.
“Rather than focusing on litigation we would prefer to invest in materials that would provide a positive outcome for students for years to come.”
The school’s neutrality policy has the backing of some parents like Yvette Schue, a district mother of four children, who said a controversial topic like homosexuality should be “handled at home,” and schools should focus on core academics.
“They don’t need to be promoting a particular point of view on [homosexuality],” Schue said.
“Parents have the right to raise their children any way they want to, and the school district doesn’t need to be sitting there saying, ‘Your parents are wrong.'”