The five plaintiffs contend the Anoka-Hennepin School District failed to protect them from severe bullying and harassment, including physical abuse and verbal slurs. Three of the plaintiffs identify themselves as gay or bisexual and two do not.
"This policy sends the message to kids that who they are is not OK," said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of two advocacy groups that filed the lawsuit in federal court in Minnesota.
The students are asking the court to block the policy, order effective protections including better training and award them unspecified damages.
"For the last three years kids have been calling me names and shoving me into lockers, desks and walls, just because they say I am different," 14-year-old Kyle Rooker, one of the plaintiffs, told reporters outside Jackson Middle School. "It got so bad that every day when the bus would arrive at the school, I would want to hide under the chair so I wouldn't have to go into school, so I wouldn't be called names or be pushed around and so I wouldn't have to hear the rumors other kids were spreading about me."
Sam Wolfe, lead attorney on the case for the center, said his group's efforts over the last 10 months to resolve dispute with the district failed.
The policy came under criticism after six students in the district committed suicide in less than two years. A parent of one of those students says her son was bullied for being gay, and gay advocacy groups say some of the other students were also bullied. The district says its internal investigation found no evidence that bullying contributed to the deaths, but it changed its anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies last October.
District spokeswoman Mary Olson said the complaint will take "considerable review" before they can comment on it.
However, Olson took exception to the plaintiffs' claims that the district has refused to take a stand to stop harassment. She said the district's anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies cover sexual orientation, and that staff are instructed to intervene if they see a student being harassed or bullied, no matter the reason. However, she said, student surveys show that bullying usually takes place when adults aren't around. She said it would be more helpful if the groups that filed the lawsuit helped the district to develop training materials instead.
The district does not consider its neutrality policy a gag order, Olson said. School officials consider it a reasonable way to balance the beliefs of conservative and liberal families in the suburban district north of Minneapolis, she said, adding that staff members also have varying beliefs.
Teachers can discuss sexual orientation as long as it's age-appropriate, fact-based, fits with the curriculum and they don't interject their personal views, Olson said.
"This district calls this a sexual orientation policy but don't let the name fool you. It doesn't bar discussion or acknowledgement of heterosexual people or relationships. It only requires pretending that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people don't exist," said Ilona Turner, staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the other group that filed the lawsuit.
Federal investigators confirmed Wednesday they have been looking into complaints of harassment and bullying in the district. The investigation began last fall. The district said it received a letter about it in November and since then has cooperated with investigators, providing documents and interviews.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)