Schools should be homophobia free

Minnesota should pass anti-bullying legislation during the special session.

by Michael Rietmulder

Anyone doubtful of the need for our schools to ramp up bullying prevention efforts clearly hasnâÄôt been paying attention to a somber parade of national and local headlines.
Last month alone, at least four youths âÄî ranging in age from 13 to 18 years old âÄî took their own lives after being harassed because they were openly or perceived to be gay. In the most recent incident, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old first year at Rutgers University leaped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly recorded and broadcast a video online of a sexual encounter Clementi had with another man.
One Minnesota lawmaker plans to address this issue during the upcoming special legislative session called by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to approve flood relief funds for southern Minnesota.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said he will introduce the Minnesota Safe Schools for All Act, which would require schools to adopt written policies aimed at reducing bullying and giving faculty and staff the necessary tools for an effective response.
Although special sessions are usually designated by the governor and House and Senate leadership to address a specific issue, Dibble believes the need for anti-bullying legislation is urgent.
âÄúMy point in introducing it in this special session is that this is a crisis,âÄù Dibble said.
While noting the need for flood relief, Dibble pointed out that the floods did not result in any deaths. âÄúWe saw the floods last year with people dying, but no one died in these floods,âÄù Dibble said. âÄúWeâÄôve got a whole bunch of kids who have died just this year as a consequence of being bullied.âÄù
The special session had been tentatively scheduled for Monday but was postponed because the federal government is still reviewing PawlentyâÄôs request for a federal disaster declaration. Dibble said the session will likely be held later this week.
According to a survey of more than 7,200 middle and high school students conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 85 percent of GLBT students reported being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation.
The school climate survey also found that students attending schools with anti-bullying policies, which include protections based on sexual orientation, were less likely to be victimized and more likely to report incidents of harassment to school officials.
All students have a right to walk the hallways of their schools without feeling threatened or intimidated because of their size, shape, color or sexual orientation. The implementation of anti-bullying policies is imperative to fostering cultures of acceptance and promoting safety in our schools and universities.
If any of this anti-bullying chatter sounds familiar, thatâÄôs because it is.
In 2009, Dibble authored similar legislation, which passed in both the House and Senate, only to be struck down by PawlentyâÄôs oft-used veto pen.
âÄúWhat Gov. Pawlenty did sends an unbelievably devastating message of rejection to those kids,âÄù Dibble said. âÄúIt was an inhumane act on his part.âÄù
The Anoka-Hennepin School District has been especially hard-hit by the effects of discriminatory bullying. In the last year, seven young people from the district have taken their own lives, four of whom were reportedly harassed by their peers on the basis of their perceived sexual orientation.
More troubling still, during the 2007-08 school year, two high school teachers in the district allegedly harassed a student they believed to be gay. According to the Star Tribune, one of the teachers said that the student âÄúhad a thing for older menâÄù after he proposed doing a report on Benjamin Franklin. The other teacher allegedly said that the boy liked to wear womenâÄôs clothing.
The student eventually transferred out of the district.
Student-to-student bullying is impermissible, but teachers harassing students is as egregious as it gets.
The districtâÄôs policy that âÄústaff must remain neutral on issues of sexual orientationâÄù is simply not working. Students and teachers alike need an unequivocal declaration that homophobia has no place in our schools.
Dibble is not the only Minnesotan working to make schools a safer place for students. In May, U.S. Sen. Al Franken introduced the Student Nondiscrimination Act of 2010 prohibiting âÄúdiscrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools.âÄù
Of the three major party candidates in the Minnesota gubernatorial race, DFLer Mark Dayton and the Independence PartyâÄôs Tom Horner have pledged their support for anti-bullying legislation that specifies sexual orientation. âÄúWe cannot allow bullying to cause young people to take their lives because of who God made them,âÄù Dayton said during SaturdayâÄôs debate at Hamline University.
However, Republican candidate Tom Emmer said he does not see the need for government intervention. âÄúI donâÄôt think we need more laws,âÄù Emmer said.
The reality is that we do need government to lead in this area by passing anti-bullying legislation. Dibble and FrankenâÄôs bills promote a safer school environment for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation.
We need government to signal a cultural shift toward acceptance and tolerance rather than perpetuate institutionalized homophobia.