“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” -Elie Wiesel
This July, 15-year-old Justin Aaberg of Anoka, Minnesota committed suicide after he was bullied at school for being gay. Following his death, many students have spoken up about the prevalence of anti-gay harassment at Anoka High School, which the staff have failed to address in any meaningful way. This is due to the school board’s policy, which states:
“Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations.”
As a result, teachers are reluctant to do anything to stop homophobic bullying when they see it, not knowing whether this would contravene school policy. The district’s excuse for this is unbelievable.
“It’s very difficult. We have a community that has widely varying opinions, and so to respect all families, as the policy says, we ask teachers to remain neutral,” said District Spokeswoman Mary Olson.
How is it that respecting the opinions of bigots can even be given the same weight as preventing harassment in schools? Why are both homophobia and promoting basic respect and equality reduced to simple “opinions”, as if they should be treated as equal in merit? Working to make schools a safe place for every student is more important than catering to the community’s prejudiced attitudes. Their biases do not need to be respected at the very real expense of children who are being bullied. No student should be forced to bear the personal cost of someone else’s bigotry. Period.
In a situation like this, where concrete harms are being ignored just to satisfy irrelevant and outdated hate that has no place here, a position of “neutrality” is nothing more than the most repugnant neglect. It is a pitiful failure to ensure something so basic as the safety of all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. There is no conceivable moral argument whereby the safety of LGBT students can legitimately be sacrificed just to make homophobes more comfortable in their prejudice. Never.
Fortunately, the district seems to have recognized that they may have screwed up here, and they’re making some changes:
Olson said the district doesn’t tolerate bullying and expects staff to stand up to it, but does acknowledge it happens to gay and lesbian students at school. She said the schools are adding some new training to their anti-bullying policy, which is currently seven years old.
Teachers will get a new training on sexual orientation and harassment. Every student will also be shown a video to lay out what that might mean.
This is a good start, and a necessary step toward handling the serious problems at their schools. When homophobic bullying becomes prevalent, there need to be specific policies geared towards counteracting that. Other schools should learn from this and work to prevent this indefensible anti-gay harassment before it can claim more lives. Anything less is a stark abandonment of fundamental moral duty, and the stance of “neutrality” becomes the utmost irresponsibility.