Rolling Stone, The Anoka-Hennepin Suicide Cluster & "No Homo Promo"

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"Growing up is hard." That was the email I got from my husband this morning after I told him how my seven-year-old spent the fifteen minutes before the bus came sobbing on my shoulder about how she only got one PTA Valentine fundraiser glow stick even though she sent six to six different friends.

"Other people got more than one. Why don't they like me? I was nice to them," she howled. I didn't ask if other kids got none, because that sort of perspective is lost on seven-year-olds. She was concerned with her experience. She needed me to focus on her experience, which at this point was MOMMY I AM IN PAIN.

It was such a little thing, such an unimportant hurt in the grand scheme of things, but it took me to a new place as a mother. It reminded me of the day one of her friends told her she liked the new girl THIIIIIS MUUUUUCH and my daughter (thismuch). But it's one thing when one particular friend causes a hurt and something else entirely when your child feels just generally unloved and unappreciated and there's nothing to be done about it. I wasn't sure how to respond. Hurts happen, and this wasn't a hurt of grand proportions. Nobody was hurting her, she just felt hurt. Having people hurt you on purpose is something altogether different.

Fast-forward several hours. I saw a tweet with this Rolling Stone article about the "No Homo Promo" policy in the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota. I clicked on it and found my eyes dashing down to the page count, because even though it was really long, I knew I was going to read the entire thing.

Here's the gist:

At the close of the seven-month-long sex-ed review, Anderson and her colleagues wrote a memo to the Anoka-Hennepin school board, concluding, "The majority of parents do not wish to have there [sic] children taught that the gay lifestyle is a normal acceptable alternative." Surprisingly, the six-member board voted to adopt the measure by a four-to-two majority, even borrowing the memo's language to fashion the resulting districtwide policy, which pronounced that within the health curriculum, "homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle."

The policy became unofficially known as "No Homo Promo" and passed unannounced to parents and unpublished in the policy handbooks; most teachers were told about it by their principals.

It gets worse. Apparently since the teachers had been instructed not to discuss homosexuality AT ALL, they did nothing when they heard kids being called all manner of anti-homosexual slurs or even coming to them for help with the bullying. They just looked at the kids and ... didn't discuss it.

Avonka Sign

Credit Image: Professor Batty on Flickr

Even when the kids were coming to them for help. From the article:

Just to be on the safe side, however, the district held PowerPoint presentations in a handful of schools to train teachers how to defend gay students from harassment while also remaining neutral on homosexuality. One slide instructed teachers that if they hear gay slurs – say, the word "fag" – the best response is a tepid "That language is unacceptable in this school." ("If a more authoritative response is needed," the slide added, the teacher could continue with the stilted, almost apologetic explanation, "In this school we are required to welcome all people and to make them feel safe.") But teachers were, of course, reminded to never show "personal support for GLBT people" in the classroom.

In researching this post, I stumbled upon PokerLawyer's response. It's amazing and worth a read. Her argument is best summed up with this:

As a lawyer, I have a deep respect for the law and recognize that, for all its flaws, it is sometimes the last best bastion against craziness that we have in this world. And even then, it's not always enough. Unfortunately, not near enough. (And speaking of the law and craziness, ya gotta, gotta, gotta watch this documentary.)

But here's the thing...in that minuscule, infinitesimal part of the universe, where law and humanity intersects, there is only you. And me. And a kabazillion other people. And how we get along begins with you. And me. And each of us.

What I'm trying, not very well, to say and convey, is that it's not enough to say, "Where are the parents???"

Sometimes I think we all forget what it's like to be a kid. I know I was struggling to remember what it felt like to not get a special whatever from friends at school this morning as my daughter was sobbing as though her heart would break. When I was her age, I was more obsessed by the comments kids made about me being fat, which were specific to me and not sort of vague and possibly explained by so many factors from forgetfulness to lack of funds for glow stick valentines. But I could sense she needed an explanation from me, not just comfort. She needed a reason she could overcome or cling to, and that reason could not be: "You are unlovable."

More than anything, kids need to know they are lovable and that they can trust the adults in charge of their lives to look out for their best interests. They are deserving of respect and the protection of adults just by existing. They don't have to do anything to earn it. It is their right as children to be protected until they are old enough to protect themselves. We as a society agree on that -- we have a different court system for kids, we have laws about sex and abuse and child labor. We as a society agree children are different than adults.

How did the officials at Anoka-Hennepin not see that teachers and counselors struggling to interpret "don't discuss homosexuality at all" was resulting in "don't stop bullying related to homosexuality or perceived homosexuality" or "don't comfort or counsel or even alert the parents if a child comes to you for help"? Or when they did see -- because I'm not so naive as to think none of them did see it and agree with it -- how did they forget these were children?

There is a lot in the Rolling Stone article about Michele Bachmann and the extreme right and churches in the area that think being gay is some sort of abomination, which is why I really love that PokerLawyer invoked the fruits of the spirit in her post imploring for us as people to practice them. I could spend several thousand words ranting about that, because I have been a Lutheran for the past 38 years and I'm fairly certain the main point of the New Testament was "judge not lest ye be judged" when you pull back from the details and take the 10,000-foot view. I personally don't believe people have any right to judge each other's sexuality unless someone is raping or abusing someone else. I personally am very strongly in the LGBT support camp. So yes, I could rant. About the gay-bashing. About the suicide cluster and whether or not we can inextricably link it to the bullying. About all of the politics we've assigned to love and whom people love.

But I'm not going to, because I think what's worse about this whole story is the teachers who were so terrified of losing their jobs that they interpreted this rule to mean they couldn't protect students from their peers. I find it impossible to believe in the entire school district there was not one teacher who went in the bathroom and cried after she heard one student call another a fag and did nothing.

What about all the teachers and administrators who didn't agree with any of it but allowed themselves to be paralyzed by a school board ruling called "No Homo Promo"? Had they all forgotten what it feels like to be a kid and think no one has your back? Because regardless of why this "don't ask/don't tell"-smacking bit of handwashing was put into play, someone on the school board clearly had.

Whether or not they did it out of homophobia or they did it out of wanting to get some local anti-gay parents off their backs, the school board let kids hang out to dry. And it was a district with a five-page anti-bullying policy, not a district where anything goes, according to Rolling Stone. Regardless, the policy of saying nothing became a policy of saying nothing when kids got peed on in the bathroom or barred from the girls' locker room. On Monday, the school board repealed the policy, but only after Rolling Stone focused attention on it. And at the vote, the adults were still bickering with each other over whether being gay is a legitimate way to be a human being in front of the students, some of whom may have been gay, once again failing to protect children from having their very existance called into question for race, religion or sexual orientation.

Adults, we've got to get it together. Maybe I don't agree with your politics. Maybe you don't agree with mine. Maybe you don't agree with the way I am a Christian. Maybe I don't like your views on capital taxation. Maybe I'm worried about your kid influencing my kid to wear tasseled loafers and you're worried about my kid telling your kid that tattoos are okay because her mom has two. We adults can disagree all we want on any manner of things of any manner of importance.

However. Regardless of our feelings, we have to always be ready to put them aside and stand together to protect our kids and make sure they make it safely to adulthood together. We have to have enough confidence in our own parenting abilities to sit down and talk through any social issues our kids ask about and give them our point of view. And then we have to have enough confidence in their decision-making skills to allow them to figure out the world when they exit high school and walk out of our houses smack into it, with all its influences and fast highways and tall buildlings. Maybe they'll agree with our beliefs. Maybe they won't. Hopefully by that point they'll have been allowed to grow into their own sense of self and think that self is okay and ready to face the world.

If we want that for them -- for all of them -- we can't be lazy about our school policies. Kids' shells haven't hardened yet. They care a lot more about what their peers think of them than you or I do, because we have the benefit of experience and hindsight. They live in the here and now and everything that happens in school is so very important to their development as people.

We can't allow kids to see adults observing them being bullied -- for any reason -- and doing nothing. I don't care about your politics. I don't care about my politics. They are children until they are 18. They deserve for us to act like the adults we are and look past our own feelings and protect them when they are harmed mentally or physically by their peers, just as we must if we see them being abused by other adults.

I hate that this story is going to become all gay/not gay, because I fear that this part of it will get lost: They are children. They are human beings who haven't matured yet. And they deserve to know that we will listen and protect them when they ask for help.

Here's a link to the It Gets Better Project if you or anyone you know needs resources .

BlogHer is nonpartisan, but I am not.

Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for BlogHer.com.

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