On CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, substitute host Sanjay Gupta hosted a segment with two guests on opposite sides of the debate over whether teachers in a Minnesota public school district should be allowed to push the view that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle to deter bullying of students perceived to be homosexual. But, instead of acting as an even-handed moderator between his two guests, Gupta repeatedly made contrarian questions or comments toward the right-leaning guest, but indicated agreement with the left-leaning guest without challenging her.
A setup piece by correspondent Poppy Harlow recounted that the Southern Poverty Law Center is taking legal action against a school district in Minnesota because of its "neutrality policy" on teachers discussing homosexuality, suggesting the policy has culpability in a recent string of teen suicides.
Gupta then brought aboard Candi Cushman of CitizenLink to argue the conservative side in favor of the neutrality policy, and Rosalind Wiseman - author of Queen Bees and Wannabes - to argue the liberal side. After Cushman argued that the school already has anti-bullying policies, including bullying based on sexual orientation, and that the neutrality policy has nothing to do with hindering action against bullying, Gupta responded:
Right, well, I mean, you heard from some of the teachers there, Candi, as well. If a teacher is to remain neutral, can they adequately support a child who may be getting harassed because of their sexuality? How do they reconcile both those things?
Cushman argued that most parents do not want teachers to take a stand on homosexuality in public schools, with Gupta then disputing her contention: "I think it's hard to generalize probably what parents across the country feel about this."
But, after Wiseman made her first statement, including her argument that teachers have more difficulty comforting gay students if they are required to be neutral on whether homosexuality is acceptable, Gupta did not make any challenge to her but instead went back to debating Cushman using Wiseman’s statement. Gupta: "So, Candi, along those lines, starting off, I mean do you object to telling kids that there's nothing wrong with being gay? Wouldn't that be important in fostering an atmosphere of safety and inclusion?"
When it went back to the left-leaning Wiseman, and she complained about people not having faith that teachers would do the right thing if they were allowed to speak more openly about homosexuality, Gupta seemed to voice agreement with Wiseman and used her statement to again argue against his conservative guest:
ROSALIND WISEMAN, AUTHOR: What I think is so problematic about what I’m hearing from Ms. Cushman is that there’s this belief that somehow if we give the teachers the opportunity to reach out to students and say you are okay at base whoever you are, that that will then go from that to jumping into gay marriage. And that really to me is about why don’t we have faith in the people in that community to do right by their kids?
SANJAY GUPTA: And the teachers who are teaching these kids who again in the piece-
GUPTA: -you saw, some of them at least seem to, Candi, feel a bit muzzled.
Below is a complete transcript of the segment from Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN:
SANJAY GUPTA: More breaking news tonight on a subject that frankly terrifies me as a father. Bullying that can be so intense that parents claim it can drive a child to suicide. Now as a parent you do everything you can to protect your child at home. You count on others to do the same at school. Well, tonight we’ve learned that two civil rights groups plan to take a Minneapolis area school district to court, this after the school district refused to change its curriculum policy on sexual orientation. In just the last two years, seven children there have committed suicide - seven. The parents of two of those children say their teenagers were bullied over their perceived sexuality. And that’s not uncommon among teen suicides nationwide. Yet in this particular school system, teachers taking a position on homosexuality; it is off limits. The question is, should it be? In a moment the two sides are going to weigh in on that, the federal investigation and the possible lawsuit. But first the heartbreaking story from Poppy Harlow.
MICHELE JOHNSON, MOTHER: These are Samantha’s swimsuits. And those have been hanging here because I just can’t put it away.
POPPY HARLOW: A swimsuit hanging lifeless since November 2009 when Michele Johnson’s only daughter took her own life.
JOHNSON: We believed that she was just hiding from everybody because she was feeling hopeless. Samantha was kind of a tomboy, and she was perceived as gay.
HARLOW: Was she gay?
JOHNSON: No, we don’t think she was gay. She was 13.
HARLOW: Samantha was the first of seven students to commit suicide in a single Minnesota school district in less than two years. Parents and friends tell us four of those teens were either gay, perceived to be gay, or questioning their sexuality. And at least two of them were bullied over it. Erica Hoops was Samantha’s best friend.
ERICA HOOPS, FRIEND: Yes, she didn’t feel safe anywhere. During volleyball they would call her names like "fag" and be like, "Go over to the boys’ locker room. You shouldn’t be in here."
HARLOW: Was the bullying part of the reason, you think, Erica, that your best friend killed herself?
HOOPS: Most definitely. There's no question about it.
HARLOW: Allegations of bullying have brought unwanted media attention, and CNN has learned a federal investigation to this quiet suburban community. We’re about 30 minutes outside of Minneapolis in Anoka-Hennepin. This is the biggest school district in the entire state. But the reason we’re here is because it has become a battleground over homosexuality in the classroom.
This is the only Minnesota school district we could find with a curriculum policy that bars teachers from taking a position on homosexuality and says such matters are best addressed outside of school. It’s become known as the neutrality policy, and some teachers say it’s part of the problem.
JERI SCHULTZ, TEACHER: There’s so much we can’t do and say to help create a more accepting and affirming and welcoming environment that would eliminate some of that bullying in the first place.
HARLOW: In a school newsletter, and in a voice mail to staff, superintendent Dennis Carlson denies any connection between bullying and the suicides.
DENNIS CARLSON, ANOKA-HENNEPIN SUPERINTENDENT: Based on all of the information we have been able to gather, none of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying or harassment.
HARLOW: Carlson says the district has a comprehensive bullying policy and has piloted a bullying tip line. He says the neutrality policy is a reasonable response to a divided community.
CARLSON: It’s a diverse community. And what I try to do as superintendent is walk down the middle of the road.
HARLOW: But one teacher is ready to take on the district. Are you afraid that you could lose your job just being here talking about this?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Realistically? Yes.
GUPTA: And Poppy Harlow joins us now. It is a heartbreaking story just listening to that mother. Poppy, what is the latest on the advocacy groups that have threatened to file a federal lawsuit against this school district?
HARLOW: Well, Sanjay, just today, the Anoka-Hennepin school district of Minnesota said that they’re going to keep, no question about it right now, the neutrality policy in place. The Southern Poverty Law Center, that’s one of the advocacy groups behind this case, says any resolution must include a repeal of that policy. So right now if you just look at it, if this doesn’t change, they plan to file a lawsuit against the school district. Now, the SPLC was present for our interviews involving its clients. And, you know, Sanjay, what we also learned today is that the school district asked the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights to assist it in training its staff to support gay students. But that is not going far enough, Sanjay, for these civil rights groups. On top of this, CNN has learned and confirmed the Departments of Justice and Education are investigating incidents involving bullying and harassment in that school district. And while the school district told us they have had collaborative discussions with federal authorities, the DOJ tells us today their investigation is ongoing. You will see our full investigation. We have got it all coming up Sunday evening at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Sanjay.
GUPTA: All right, Poppy. Thanks a lot. Let’s keep on topic here. I want to bring in educator and bullying expert Rosalind Wiseman. She’s the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World. Also, Candi Cushman, education analyst for CitizenLink, the policy arm of Focus on the Family. Thanks to both of you. Candi, you saw that report with us. I mean, you, my understanding is you support the neutrality policy in that Minnesota school district. First of all, what do you make of this news, this breaking news that federal officials are conducting an investigation, a civil rights one?
CANDI CUSHMAN, CITIZENLINK: Well, first of all, we do support the neutrality policy. It seems reasonable and fair to all the parents and students. It’s important to understand that this policy has nothing to do with the school’s anti-bullying policy. This is a curriculum policy, simply asking, directing the teachers to remain neutral when discussing controversial sexual topics in the classroom. It directs them to discuss the issue in an age-appropriate, factual way and in a way that’s relevant to the curriculum. It doesn’t ban them from talking about it. So I’m not sure what all the controversy is about because they actually have an anti-bullying policy that specifically mentions sexual orientation issues and that gay and lesbian kids should be protected. So I’m really not clear on why the activists are threatening a federal lawsuit against the school district. It just makes one wonder, what more do they want?
GUPTA: Right. Well, I mean, you heard from some of the teachers there, Candi, as well. If a teacher is to remain neutral, can they adequately support a child who may be getting harassed because of their sexuality? How do they reconcile both those things?
CUSHMAN: Well, the school has said over and over, and we would agree with the school, that no one should ever be neutral on bullying. Absolutely, if they see a student being harassed because they are perceived to identify as gay or lesbian, that should be stopped. That should be prohibited and punished immediately. There is no neutrality on bullying. But what the school is saying, what they’re doing as they said is trying to respect a diverse community. They are not mandating that homosexuality be promoted in the classroom. And apparently nothing short of endorsement of homosexuality in classroom curriculum will satisfy the gay activist groups. And I just don’t think most American parents, that’s not what they’re comfortable with in public school classrooms. That’s not why they send their kids to public schools.
GUPTA: I think it’s hard to generalize probably what parents across the country feel about this. But, Rosalind, I mean, what do you think about this? What are your thoughts on what Candi is saying specifically?
ROSALIND WISEMAN, AUTHOR OF QUEEN BEES AND WANNABES: Sure. I think most parents and all parents in this country want children to go to school and be safe, no matter who they are, no matter what they look like, no matter what their perceived orientation of any kind is.
And the problem with neutrality is it doesn’t look neutral to the target or the bully. It looks like you are siding with the bully. And so if you can’t name on top of that the behavior that’s happening because you have to take a neutral stand, then what it looks like to the child and to everybody around is that homosexuality or that gossiping is so shaming and so you can’t talk about it that the child will never come forward. So if the teachers are muzzled or if there’s a perception that the teachers are muzzled then our children are never going to come forward.
WISEMAN: So in all of these ways, all of this gets to a place where children will not come forward and they feel isolated. And then they do terribly sad things like take their lives.
GUPTA: So, Candi, along those lines, starting off, I mean do you object to telling kids that there’s nothing wrong with being gay? Wouldn’t that be important in fostering an atmosphere of safety and inclusion?
CUSHMAN: Well, what we fully support is the right of parents to determine and control when, how and if their children are exposed to controversial sexual topics like homosexuality, gay marriage. Again, most American parents are not sending their kids to taxpayer-funded schools to be given homosexuality lessons and to have those lessons mandated. However, I am absolutely in support of a teacher saying you should not use a derogatory or degrading statement about a student perceived to be gay or lesbian. It’s wrong to use insults, derogatory name-calling, physical harm. Peer abuse is always wrong, and it should be stopped as soon as it happens. No one’s neutral on that.
WISEMAN: What’s so amazing to me, can I just say, what’s so amazing to me is there’s so little time in a school to be able to teach these programs. And where is the faith in the teachers in the school district and the counselors and the school nurses that they’re going to do right by the kids and they’re going to teach these kids appropriately? And that’s what I think is so problematic about what I’m hearing from Ms. Cushman is that there’s this belief that somehow if we give the teachers the opportunity to reach out to students and say, you are okay at base whoever you are, that that will then go from that to jumping into gay marriage. And that really to me is about why don’t we have faith in the people in that community to do right by their kids?
GUPTA: And the teachers who are teaching these kids who again in the piece-
GUPTA: -you saw some of them at least seem to, Candi, feel a bit muzzled.
GUPTA: Look, we could talk about this a long time. There is a federal investigation as we all heard under way, so we will keep on this topic. Rosalind Wiseman, Candi Cushman, thanks so much for joining us.
CUSHMAN: Thank you.
WISEMAN: Thank you.