In Anoka-Hennepin, teacher silence is broken
Maria Elena Baca, Star Tribune, April 20, 2012 –
In years past, teachers wouldn’t have been allowed to show their support to students protesting anti-gay bullying. Now they can.
In some ways, Friday’s Day of Silence observation at Anoka High School was no different than it’s been every year in the past decade: 85 students wore placards that explained they were muting their voices to draw attention to the plight of young people silenced by the threat or reality of anti-gay bullying.
What was different this year: Their teachers were able to support them, out loud.
Eight teachers and counselors wore the official red Day of Silence T-shirts. That outward act of support wouldn’t have been permitted under the district’s old Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, which was scuttled two months ago.
“This is one of the many positive changes we’ve had,” said math teacher Paul Kelley, also adviser to Anoka High’s Gay-Straight Alliance student group. “Kids were really excited that staff members were able to wear them and be able to show their support in such a visible way.”
Several of the district’s high schools and middle schools were part of a student-led observance that was expected to include students in 8,000 schools in every U.S. state and 70 nations, said Andy Marra, spokesman for Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The first observance was in 1996 at the University of Virginia.
It’s not unusual for teachers to stand by students on the Day of Silence, Marra said. That can be critical for teens who may not get support elsewhere, said GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard.
“On a day like today, it’s particularly important to students who may face rejection from so many facets of their lives to be able to see the support of adults in their lives,” she said. “That can make all the difference. It’s a wonderful development.”
The old policy prohibited teachers from taking a position on matters related to sexual orientation. Some blamed it for creating an atmosphere that tolerated persistent bullying of students who are gay or perceived as gay.
A new policy instead calls for “respectful exchanges of views.”
For the Anoka-Hennepin district, the adoption of the new policy was one step toward settlement of an anti-bullying lawsuit filed against the district last summer; over the past year, the district also has broadened its anti-bullying policies and provided training for teachers. It will work in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice to create model programs to prevent bullying and harassment.
Day of Silence is not a district-backed observance in Anoka-Hennepin or elsewhere.
Anoka High counselor Barry Terrass said he wore the red T-shirt Friday because a student asked him to.
“I got a couple looks from students who are part of the movement who don’t know me, but appreciated I have it on,” he said. “The idea is we respect everybody.”
Teacher Kim Corbey agreed. She said she had some nods and glances in the hallways, but that the shirt didn’t intrude on her English classes.
“I guess that’s fine; in many ways, that’s progress,” she said. “The fact that we can wear the officially sanctioned shirt, till now, that’s always been in doubt.”
Between dismissal and the time for school buses to roll away, a handful of students gathered at the flagpole in front of the school.
“Hey, Anoka!” they shouted. “What are you gonna do to end the silence?”
A few reflected on their day. Kira Martin, a junior, said it was the sixth year she had participated. Keeping mum was easier this year, in part because no one tried to needle her into talking, she said.
Olivia Hoff, a junior, said she had class with one teacher who wore the shirt. It didn’t come up in classroom discussion, but that didn’t mean it went unnoticed, she said.
“It was great to see a teacher able to wear the Day of Silence T-shirt,” she said. Then you know they’re supportive of you and what you’re doing.”
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409