When neutrality isn’t right

“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In a situation like this, where concrete harms are being ignored just to satisfy irrelevant and outdated hate that has no place here, a position of “neutrality” is nothing more than the most repugnant neglect.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.

When neutrality isn’t right

10 thoughts on “When neutrality isn’t right

  1. 1

    In which of the following do you think the teachers would stop the bullying:
    – it was gays bullying a straight kid for being a “breeder”
    – it was atheists bullying a christian for believing in a zombie jew Jesus
    – it was conservatives bullying a girl for having an abortion
    – it was christians bullying an person for leaving their faith to become an atheist
    – it was (insert religious group) bullying a person for being wiccan/pagan
    – it was the cool kids bullying a guy for being a geek
    – it was rednecks bullying a muslim student for 9/11

    1. 1.1

      Thinking back to my high school those kind of frontlines would at least given you an orientation who to stick to for matters of group self defense.
      Back there where only(among the male classmates):
      -the “aggressors”, those who always start a fight even(especially) amongst each other
      -those who were barely able enough to defend themselves to be left alone half of the time(incl. me)
      -and the unfortunate “weak”
      being gay, geek or christian or whatever would probably not have made any difference
      Sure the teachers were able to bring order but only as long as they were there, in the remaining 1/4 of the time all hell broke loose.
      (as I learned later during my abitur years(I loved those years) not all highschool´s in that city were this bad, I just happened to get to the worst one in the district)

      I think what I am trying to say that in some cases an anti-harassment policy might not even be enough especially because school personnel can´t be there all the time (but I have no idea what else could be done)

  2. 2

    of they’re being bullied, the staff doesn’t even need to mention anything about homosexuality, but just say to leave them alone and don’t ridicule them or whatever or have a punishment. I want bash their fucking heads in.

  3. 3

    This is really sad,I wish the kid would have told someone about the way he was being treated at school,maybe now they will put laws in place so teacher’s would actually do something about the harassment of students,they teach such useless crap in school (social studies,algerbra,science,choir) as it is.

    1. Deb

      Social studies relates directly to bullying, actually. In fact social scientists and psychologists are the people who STUDY bullying in schools to come up with ways to stop it!

      Further, math and science are critical to your understanding of how the world works, not to mention strengthening your critical thinking skills. The latter can be true of literature as well when done properly.

      That’s the key, sadly; teachers do not always successfully link the classwork to our personal lives. But keep in mind that’s often the fault of the higher-ups, and that teachers have limited control (sometimes next to none) over their own curricula. If you’re still in school, I urge you to do the best you can and work to figure out how to make your studies personally meaningful. Not only will it help you get a job/get into a good school/etc. later in life, but it will make you a better thinker as well. And as you can see, we need more deep thinkers in this country!

  4. 4

    This is pathetic. At what point will this escalate from neutrality to gross negligence? Will someone have to be outright killed under their watch before they take responsibility for their students? Unfortunately, this is the case: a child died because of their negligence, and they still take this ridiculous neutral stance towards it. When will this end? Why is it that we can not live in harmony?
    As mentioned above, what do they do if next time, it is a Muslim, Atheist, or Buddhist student? How about transgendered, band members, or geeks? What minority has to die before we realize that we are all just humans, separated by artificial boundaries?

  5. 5

    I would ask 2 questions of the school board:
    1. What are the consequential differences between a neutral stance and ignoring the problem altogether?
    2. If the staff hasn’t been told to take a side in the debate between determinism and free will, and a student is being constantly harassed and bullied for being on whatever side is less prevalent in the school, would they also endorse a position of neutrality/neglect? If yes, then shouldn’t that be the case with all neutral policies of the board, making bullying only an applicatory term when it’s something the board has a policy on? If no, then why the hell was it allowed to happen in this case?

    Obviously they’re rhetorical, but if only someone had gotten the chance to ask them before it was too late.

  6. 7

    This is one of the reasons why I love much of the north, and my school in specific; we have several students who are openly gay, dress very strangely, are openly atheistic (these two latter including me) et cetera and nobody even seems to care. If anything, they’re kind of in awe of the bisexual/homosexual people and genuinely curious. If any bullying has gone on, I haven’t seen it.
    Especially in contrast to that, this school not standing up against bullies, of any kind, is inexcusable. That’s not remaining “neutral”, it’s taking the side of the bullies.

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