(p. 238) The Shifting Political Winds: LGBT Students, Educational Policy and Politics, and the Dilemmas Confronting Street-Level Bureaucrats
There has been a veritable sea change in how lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)1 people, and how LGBT youth in particular, have been viewed by the U.S. general public since 2003. Attitudes have moved from dangerously hostile to increasingly supportive (Taylor, Lewis, Jacobsmeier, & DiSarro, 2012). Furthermore, the legal justification for states officially stigmatizing LGB identities collapsed in the aftermath of the Lawrence v. Texas (2003) Supreme Court decision, which decriminalized same-sex sexual activity (Lugg, 2006). Additionally, court decisions involving marriage equity came at a dizzying pace. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in US v. Windsor (2003), which invalidated part of the Defense of Marriage Act, opened the door to federal recognition of same-sex marriage. This door was then flung wide open in the Court’s subsequent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which mandated marriage equity in all 50 states. Nevertheless, more than half of the states in the United States continue to discriminate against LGBT people—and in multiple venues, including employment and education (Adelman & Lugg, 2012; Lugg, 2015). The result is an uneven and, at times, incoherent landscape of growing legal protections and increasing public support alongside ongoing political erasure and legal discrimination (Lugg & Murphy, 2014).
Given, in part, this unstable legal environment, it is not surprising that LGBT youth attending public schools remain at risk for bullying, harassment, and physical violence (Kosciw, Greytak, Bartkiewicz, Boesen, & Palmer, 2012; Poteat & Russell, 2013), even in those states that have long had civil rights protections for LGBT individuals and anti-bullying protections (e.g., L. W. v. Toms River, 2007). Furthermore, although the federal government is moving toward LGB equity at this writing (including a T here is questionable2), there are still no federal (p. 239) statutes banning discrimination against LGBT people in employment or housing (Biegel, 2010). And, finally, given the legal and political incoherence at the federal level regarding LGBT identity, there is similar confusion at the state and local levels, where LGBT identity may remain criminalized under unrevoked state sodomy laws (Adelman & Lugg, 2012; Lugg, 2006) as well as stigmatized under “no promo homo”3 state laws and local school district regulations (Lugg & Adelman, 2015; Lugg, 2015).
The educators of the Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota, school district provide a poignant example of this policy and political incoherence. Caught between state human rights law protecting LGBT identity and long-standing local board policy explicitly stating “homosexuality should not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle,” school personnel quickly interpreted the board policy as banning any positive mention of LGBT identity throughout the district, across all curricular and student areas (Eckholm, 2011, p. 18; Erdely, 2012, p. 22). Consequently, teachers and administrators felt they could not address rampant LGBT bullying and harassment without risking their jobs. Previous research has shown that youth who engage in same-sex behavior have higher risk for depression and suicidal behavior (Haas et al., 2010; Mustanski & Liu, 2013; Russell, 2003). In the Anoka-Hennepin school district, enough LGBT students felt targeted for severe harassment and violence that several gay students died by suicide. As teacher Jefferson Fietek observed, “LGBTQ students don’t feel safe at school. … They’re made to feel ashamed of who they are. They’re bullied. And there’s no one to stand up for them, because teachers are afraid of being fired” (Erdely, 2012, p. 15).
Caught between conflicting laws and regulations regarding LGBT identity, the public educators of Anoka-Hennepin decided to follow the dictates of their local board, which ran counter to state law, and failed to intervene in the welfare of their LGBT students.
One aspect that superheated the politics shaping events in Anoka-Hennepin was that of economic decline. Historically, at the macro-level, economic decline has fueled political instability and, at times, violence, particularly over queer issues (Garland, 2001; Herman, 1997). Locally, political anxieties over economic conditions have long led to instability and conflict over board policies and politics (Boyd, 1982, 1983; Boyd, Lugg, & Zahorchak, 1996; Lugg, 1998). Economic decline can fuel political instability in any global locale (Brands, 2008; Eksteins, 1989; Judt, 2010). And Anoka-Hennepin’s educational politics have long been marked by conflict, especially over LGBTQ issues (Erdely, 2012).
Our chapter teases out how these current issues in U.S. educational policy and politics vis-à-vis LGBTQ students conflict by employing a lens from the politics of education literature: street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 2010; Weatherly & Lipsky, 1977). As first presented by Weatherly and Lipsky (1977) and expanded upon by Lipsky in 1980 (Lipsky, 2010), street-level bureaucrats are career civil servants (like public educators) who are the ultimate implementers of a given policy. Consequently, regardless of the intent of the policy’s authors, how the street-level bureaucrat defines a policy through his or her implementation is the actual meaning of the policy (Boyd & Crowson, 1981; Lipsky, 2010; Weatherly & (p. 240) Lipsky, 1977). Given the shifting political winds regarding LGBT identity and educational policy, teasing out whose understandings of a given policy are actually implemented is critical for the well-being of LGBT students who attend U.S. public schools. Educators, working in their capacities as street-level bureaucrats, have the potential to find spaces within these broader political and policy changes to better serve as supports for LGBT students. Additionally, since career civil service personnel (notably, public educators) are literally everywhere that there is a functioning government, these implications may have a saliency far beyond U.S. borders. Finally, in the United States and other locales, economic decline can amplify political discontent, and this includes conflicts over the course and scope of educational policies.
A Dynamic Legal and Political Environment for LGBT People
Courts, unlike legislatures, are required to address the substance of claims properly brought before them by citizens. And, under our system of government, courts have the authority to strike down laws and regulations that are inconsistent with constitutional provisions. It is for both of these reasons that minority groups in the United States frequently rely on the courts when seeking the rights and opportunities that accompany equal citizenship
(Ball, 2010, p. 18).
There has been a revolution in how LGBT people are viewed and treated in the United States since the early 2000s, at least in relation to the legal and political environments. LGB (but not T) people have gained real victories in decriminalization of status (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003), acceptance as full-members of the military with the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” as well as increasing access to state and federally recognized civil marriage (US v. Windsor, 2013); this is a far cry from prior classifications as dangerous criminals in 15 states and as existential threats to military cohesion. Although it is improbable that the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) will be passed by the current Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives, it is clear that this piece of civil rights legislation will remain on the political agenda for the immediate future (Brydum, 2013). All told, the federal political and legal contexts for LGB persons have shifted rather quickly and show the potential for further dynamism.
The status of LGBTQ children attending public schools has also improved somewhat through a combination of litigation at both the state and federal levels, state-level legislation, and activism (Cianciotta & Cahill, 2012). As Cianciotta and Cahill (2012) document, only 2% of LGBT students attending U.S. public schools were specifically protected against discrimination in 2000. By 2010, that percentage had increased to 39%. Although this is a dramatic change, this means that most U.S. public school students, 61%, remain at risk for discrimination in their schools (Cianciotta & Cahill, 2012). That said, some public school districts (p. 241) have written policies banning anti-LGBT bias, and some state departments of education, like Pennsylvania, have issued regulations doing the same (Cianciotta & Cahill, 2012).
Nevertheless, the civil rights status of LGBT students is actually less secure than their adult counterparts. First, students are children—not adults—and so have fewer legal rights and responsibilities than adults, and this includes some public educators—but not all (Biegel, 2010). This distinction is critical since primary and secondary education is compulsory. Parents are legally required to ensure that their children are schooled either in public, private, or home settings. Children have no legal say regarding what sort of education they receive, although their parents are supposed to represent the best interests of their children. Furthermore, whereas LGBT children may have statutory rights through a novel reading of Title IX (Bolt, 2013; Eisemann, 2000; Orel, 2013), they have no explicit federal constitutional protections regarding their LGBT status. As a result, the current policy and legal environment is a hodge-podge of contradictory and conflicting directives at the national level (Biegel, 2010; Lugg & Murphy, 2014), although some states, including Minnesota, have been very clear in protecting the LGBT students who attend their public schools. We now turn to a brief overview of the events that unfolded in Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota.
Brief Overview of Events Leading to Litigation in Anoka-Hennepin
I would hear people called ‘fags’ all the time without it being addressed. Teachers just didn’t respond
(Justin Anderson in Erdely, 2012, p. 45).
In 1994, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board passed a “no promo homo” policy requiring that “homosexuality not be addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle” (Dunbar & Tosto, 2011; Erdely, 2012, p. 22). This policy forbade LGBT-positive curricula and speech in the district’s schools. Furthermore, it explicitly marginalized and stigmatized LGBT identity through its requirement that homosexual identity be treated as abnormal and invalid. Local activists claimed such stigmatization was needed, drawing on widely debunked fears that LGBT identity is contagious (Lugg & Murphy, 2014; Lugg, 2015), suggesting that “discussing the matter would encourage kids to try it, turning straight kids gay” (Erdely, 2012, p. 20). Its passage was largely unannounced to parents and was informally communicated to teachers via their principals.
Many local teachers were confused, and they questioned whether they could address the bullying of LGBT students in their schools without violating the district policy (Bolt, 2013; Erdely, 2012). By 2008, two teachers were brought into a legal complaint filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights over the gay baiting of a student. These faculty members participated in “gay jokes” at this student’s expense. One of the teachers assented and laughed when one of this student’s peers suggested the student might be a molester because of the student’s perceived sexual orientation (Minnesota Department of Human (p. 242) Rights, 2009). After quickly settling in 2009, the Anoka-Hennepin school district elected to revise its “no promo homo” policy instead of removing it. The new policy mandated that LGBT issues not be included in curricula and, therefore, that educators and officials must remain neutral whenever said issues arise in their schools.4 Educators were not to comment at all regarding LGBT issues. Furthermore, the teachers who were the targets of the litigation were allowed to retain their positions (Bolt, 2013). A letter was drafted by the Board clarifying that the district’s shift to “neutrality” did not represent approval of LGBT-positive lessons or discussions by educators—or even in student-led discussions (Erdely, 2012). However, many teachers remained unclear as to what this “neutrality” policy was requiring of them in practice and so chose to “play it safe” by continuing to avoid LGBT-positive discourse in their classrooms, fearing any positive mention of LGBT persons or issues could be interpreted as a violation of the district’s policy (Eckholm, 2011; Horner, 2011). Clearly, the operational definition of neutrality was silence.
The resulting climate in Anoka-Hennepin’s schools was wildly LGBT-negative, which has also been the experience in other locales (Meyer & Stader, 2009). At least eight students died by suicide in the 2 years following the initial implementation of Anoka-Hennepin’s neutrality policy, many of whom had been bullied regarding LGBT identity, some violently (Bolt, 2013; Meneses & Grimm, 2012; Orel, 2013). Furthermore, the bullying and harassment of LGBT students escalated in both intensity and frequency, becoming daily occurrences for many students. One student reported daily harassment including peers threatening to kill him, shoving him, and throwing objects, including food, at him (Jane Doe v. Anoka-Hennepin, 2011, p. 6). One assistant principal is reported to have suggested to this student’s parents that he should be prohibited from wearing feminine clothing to school. School staff also suggested that this student should stop singing while at school since “boys don’t do that” (Jane Doe v. Anoka-Hennepin, 2011, p. 6). Another student was the target of pejoratives such as “gay,” “faggot,” and “dyke.” In one instance, she was punched in the stomach while being called a “he/she.” Notably, this student reported that, “there was often a teacher close by when students called her names, but only one teacher ever reprimanded a student” (Jane Doe v. Anoka–Hennepin, 2011, p. 10-11). Yet another student reported being targeted with similar pejoratives and even an event where peers called her a “faggot” while attempting to push her down a flight of stairs (Jane Doe v. Anoka-Hennepin, 2011, p. 17). Upon raising her attempted assault with the assistant principal at her school, she was informed that “there was nothing he could do about it” (Jane Doe v. Anoka-Hennepin, 2011, p. 17). All of the students involved in that case reported repeated attempts to seek support from administrators and educators. In each of these cases, the administrative responses consistently avoided directly addressing the ongoing harassment and, in the last case, failed to address an assault. Furthermore, much of the district’s responses were to encourage students to conform to more heteronormative gender expression. Ironically, the failure to respond might have been construed as conformation to the district’s neutrality policy—hence claims by at least one administrator that (p. 243) there was nothing he could do. In short, a common thread among all of these cases was the lack of response from educators and administrators (Bolt, 2013).
More Litigation and the Federal Consent Decree
It is an unfair discriminatory practice to discriminate in any manner in the full utilization of or benefit from any educational institution, or the services rendered thereby to any person because of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, sexual orientation, or disability, or to fail to ensure physical and program access for disabled persons
(Minnesota Statute 363A.13.1).
In 2010, perhaps in response to the growing national uproar over the suicides of several gay Anapoke-Hennepin district students; the U.S. Department of Justice, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, filed suit against the Anoka-Hennepin school district claiming violations of students’ rights under both Title IV of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Higher Education Act. By March 2012, the District had agreed to a 5-year consent decree (Office of Public Affairs, 2012). As part of this agreement, the District has been required to consult experts for review of the district’s policies regarding “sex-based harassment” and the district’s counseling supports for students who are harassed. Anoka-Hennepin also agreed to construct and implement a plan for “preventing and addressing student-on-student sex-based harassment,” complete with training for faculty, staff, and students.
Additionally, the district formed an Anti-Bullying/Anti-Harassment Task Force to oversee the implementation of this plan. Administrators, faculty, parents, and community members were all recruited for this committee. In October 2012, Bryan Lindquist was appointed to this task force. Lindquist has been an organizer of the Parents Action League, a community lobbying group that formed to support Anoka-Hennepin’s “no promo homo” and subsequent neutrality policies (see Box 14.1). This group was subsequently categorized an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (Horner, 2012). Lindquist’s appointment triggered howls of outrage by both local parents of deceased students and national social justice groups (Hawkins, 2012). Furthermore, Lindquist’s appointment seemed to indicate a lack of support by the district’s leadership in embracing the intent of the consent decree. This is underscored by an op-ed Lindquist wrote shortly following his appointment (see Box 14.2).
That said, based on the Task Force’s minutes posted on the district’s website, it appears that Mr. Lindquist has been less than an enthusiastic participant in the Task Force’s activities (Anoka-Hennepin, 2014). Lindquist missed about one-third of the Task Force’s meetings during the 2013–14 school year. Also, given the tightly structured nature of the agenda and the very clear behavioral expectations for members included on every agenda, it would be exceedingly difficult for any single member of the 29-member Task Force to dominate, much less (p. 244) hijack, the broader agenda of the Task Force. Furthermore, Lindquist’s group, the Parents Action League, experienced a significant setback just prior to the beginning of 2013–14 school year. In August, the parents of a high school freshman, in cooperation with the Parents Action League, requested that copies of the book Eleanor & Park be removed from the library at Anoka High School because of their moral objections (it is a story of a young lesbian couple). The book had also been selected for the district’s voluntary summer reading program, “Rock the Book” (Prather, 2013). The district leadership investigated the process (p. 245) for how the book was selected, concluding that the established procedures were followed and given the legal issues involved—namely, that parents cannot have morally objectionable books removed from the district’s library after they have been approved (see United States Supreme Court decision in Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853  in Samuelson, 2013). As a result of their findings, they ruled that the books would remain (Prather, 2013). Ironically, the effort to get the book banned sparked interest in the neighboring Twin Cities. The St. Paul Public Library ordered additional books to meet the spike in demand (Prather, 2013).
While the political situation appears to be calming in Anoka-Hennepin as of Spring 2014, this might be due to the fact that the Parents Action League seems to be nearly moribund. For example, their website has not been updated since August 2013, and its copyright notice is obsolete (Parents Action League, 2013). Nonetheless, it appears that while the district’s leadership is striving to be outwardly compliant with the consent decree, it has not embraced the decree’s larger intent, as witnessed by the appointment of Mr. Lindquist. Furthermore, the district is not immune to political turmoil in the future because it appears to have entered a period of population and fiscal decline. We now turn to the factors influencing and the possible effects of Anoka-Hennepin’s present politics of decline.
The Politics of Decline
Declining enrollments and budgets and declining confidence and legitimacy interact to exacerbate the political and management problems of educational administrators
(Boyd, 1983, p. 9).
One key issue that generally escapes mention from analyses of the situation in Anoka-Hennepin is that it is a school district in the midst of decline. At present, it has declining student enrollment coupled with an increasing percentage of remaining students living in poverty—a percentage that has doubled from 17% in 2002 to 34% in 2012 (Austreng, 2012). This combination of declining total student enrollment and a rising percentage of “high-need students” tends to place public school districts into fiscal vises where it is increasingly difficult to properly fund educational services—including those mandated under state and federal law. Fueling Anoka-Hennepin’s fiscal angst is that the state of Minnesota ties state education funding to the numbers of children enrolled within a given district (Austreng, 2012). In other words, dwindling numbers of students will reduce the amount of state aid allotted to a given school district. Ongoing fiscal distress can also amplify the political tensions already present within a given community or district, sometimes dramatically changing the culture to one of “the politics of decline,” wherein a collaborative and consultative political culture shifts to one of ongoing and very public conflict (Boyd, 1979, 1982, 1983; Kearns, 2011). (p. 246)
The political culture in Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota’s largest school district, has been more conflictual than most suburban districts. Given the unique political dynamics of a historically white, religiously conservative district that is increasingly racially, religiously, and ethnically diverse, there has been potential for even more rancorous conflict, not only over LGBTQ issues, but also regarding religious liberty for non-Christians, language minority students, and so forth (Meneses & Grimm, 2012). Furthermore, if the negative media exposure continues, it could make attracting potential homebuyers very difficult for Anoka-Hennepin (Kearns, 2011), which could, in turn, increase the rate of decline (Boyd, 1979, 1982, 1983; Kearns, 2011). The risk for the district, thanks to the relentless litigation and harsh media glare (Daily Mail [UK], 2012; Eckholm, 2011; Erdely, 2012; Horner, 2012), is that both the Board and the district’s leadership team, by instituting and defending “no promo homo” and then “neutrality” policies, may have put the school system in a downward spiral that is increasingly difficult to escape (Boyd, 1983; Kearns, 2011). There is good empirical evidence from the 1970s onward that ongoing negative media reporting can badly damage the “appeal” of a given public school district to future and current residents, bringing concerns over schools’ public images into policy decision-making (Boyd, 1979, 1982, 1983; Crowson & Porter-Gehrie, 1980; Kearns, 2011). Savvy parents and guardians are less likely to move to, or remain in, a district that is marked by ongoing political and legal turmoil.
A Possible Way Forward: Educators Who Become Street-Level Bureaucrats
A policy is one thing, but how it plays out in my classroom every day is another
(Julie Blaha in Horner, 2011, p. 20).
Given these seemingly grim pressures on the system, educators in Anoka-Hennepin were not and are not powerless to challenge this toxic politics of decline. Although they could not and cannot engage in actions that could be construed as rank insubordination (as doing so might subject them to dismissal with cause by the School Board), they do have room to interpret and reinterpret policy, and they are expected to do so in many instances (Boyd & Crowson, 1981). In the case of Anoka-Hennepin, the Board had promulgated a policy that was contradictory to state law and teachers were terribly confused as to what the actual meaning of the “no promo homo” policy and its offspring, the subsequent neutrality policy (Erdely, 2012).
It is likely that some teachers and principals quietly interpreted and reinterpreted these two policies to conform more closely with their own notions of good professional practice (Lipsky, 2010), as the events surrounding Eleanor & Park reveal. For some educators, these professional norms would include student safety and equality and broader issues involving social justice (Marshall & Gerstl-Pepin, 2005). But for others, both policies precluded addressing the (p. 247) rampant harassment and queer-negative bullying that was happening, in some cases, right in front of them (Erdely, 2012; Jane Doe v. Anoka-Hennepin, 2011). In one instance, an assistant principal actually told a bullied student that “Boys will be boys and you just have to deal with it” (Jane Doe v. Anoka-Hennepin, 2011, p. 5). Some educators’ interpretations of these policies led them to question whether educators could even be “out” in their schools—regardless that the state Human Rights Code clearly protected them. For example, teacher colleagues warned school counselor Colleen Cashen against publically identifying as a lesbian (Erdely, 2012). Teacher Jefferson Fietek reported worrying that merely self-identifying would violate the district’s policy when asked if he was gay by one of his students (Erdely, 2012). Still other teachers believed any discussion of sexuality in their classrooms might violate the neutrality policy and so chose to enforce the policy by refusing to raise issues of sexuality at all—even where queer-negative bullying occurred in their presence (Eckholm, 2011; Erdely, 2012; Horner, 2011). Consistent with an ill-defined policy coming on the heels of an explicitly discriminatory policy (Lipsky, 2010), the neutrality policy in Anoka-Hennepin became whatever individual teachers or principals defined in all of these cases, not what was defined by the School Board or the district’s Superintendent (Carlson, 2011; Lipsky, 2010).
This is a classic phenomenon in the politics of education literature where educators operate as “street-level bureaucrats” (Ball & Forzani, 2007; Boyd & Crowson, 1981). A concept developed by Michael Lipsky (2010), street-level bureaucrats are those public employees who regularly deal directly with clients in delivering social services, sometimes in a hostile environment, and who operate with considerable freedom from direct supervision (Boyd & Crowson, 1981; Carlson & Planty, 2012). Teachers and principals, as street-level bureaucrats, exercise a good deal of discretionary power because they are asked to meet client needs but are hamstrung by chronically insufficient resources and organizational rules that are ambiguous or unwieldy (Boyd & Crowson, 1981; Carlson & Planty, 2012). Anoka-Hennepin’s educators—and consequently the district itself—is situated within a larger community that is experiencing decline. This decline contributes to the sometimes heated political discourse with which educators engage at their discretion—as, for instance, with debate concerning the appropriateness of Eleanor & Park for district students. As Lipsky notes in his classic text, Street-Level Bureaucracy: “street-level bureaucrats still have the responsibility at least to be open to the possibility that each client presents special circumstances and opportunities that may require fresh thinking and flexible action” (2010, p. 161, emphasis in the original).
Ultimately, the theory of street-level bureaucracy posits that the meaning of any policy is determined by those responsible for implementing it—not the policymakers who devised the actual policy (Ball & Forzani, 2007; Boyd & Crowson, 1981; Carlson & Planty, 2012). Educators’ lack of response to student reports of harassment and bullying became the definition of “neutrality” in Anoka-Hennepin.
Although we do not have any direct evidence of educators consciously subverting the “no promo homo” policy, clearly, given the harsh political environment (p. 248) and the level of homophobic activism in the community, educators who did engage in strategic subversion of this policy would have had to maintain fairly low profiles (Meyer & Stader, 2009). Furthermore, this below-the-radar discretion was not particularly effective since the district experienced a horrifying spate of suicides seemingly related to the district’s fiercely homophobic culture. Nevertheless, perhaps a more conscious embrace of educators as “street-level bureaucrats” might offer social justice-minded educators a reasonable and more broadly effective course of action, such as intervening when they witness bullying that is based on homophobic and heterosexist bias.
Implications for Educational Politics and Policymaking vis-à-vis LGBT Students
Street-level bureaucrats are often expected to be more than benign and passive gatekeepers. They are also expected to be advocates, that is, to use their knowledge, skill, and position to secure for clients the best treatment or position consistent with the constraints of service
(Lipsky, 2010, p. 72).
The theory of street-level bureaucrats opens an analytic window into why and how public service professionals reshape policy to comport with their on-the-ground realities. Public school educators will often modify a given policy because it simply fails to match their lived realities (Haynes & Licata, 1995; Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Buffeted by shortages of time, personnel, professional development, and material and faced with conflicting organizational demands, street-level bureaucrats tend to make these changes on the fly, not fully conscious that they may have completely changed the meaning of a given policy, much less the larger implications for that policy, which influences its subsequent efficacy and longevity (Lipsky, 2010). In short, educators’ daily discretion alters written policy in dialogue with both their workplace constraints and personal values/beliefs. The potential for educators to apply their discretion, in their capacities as street-level bureaucrats, highlights a need for policymakers to more carefully attend to the design of and communication about their desired implementation of educational policies.
Policymakers—and this includes everyone from the President of the United States to local school board members—should be cognizant that, if a policy is badly designed or not well-articulated to multiple audiences, and if educators receive insufficient professional development on how to actually implement the policy as intended, educators may default to following their own understandings and misunderstandings as to what the policy actually “means.” Given the ill-defined neutrality policy in Anoka-Hennepin, coming on the heels of a notorious “no promo homo” policy, educators were left somewhat adrift when it came to both the actual meaning of the neutrality policy and how to actually implement it. Consequently, they defaulted to operating as if the old “no promo (p. 249) homo” policy was still in place—a policy that was clearly at variance with state and federal law (Title IX).
Yet the theory of street-level bureaucracy also opens the door for educators who are more aware of their positions as street-level bureaucrats to act in more socially just ways with their discretion, particularly if they can work in concert with one another. For example, in January 2013, teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School refused to deliver state standardized tests to their students citing, in part, the Northwest Evaluation Association’s (the group that markets the state test) admission that the test was not designed to evaluate teachers (Ravitch, 2013) nor was it aligned to the curriculum (Micucci, 2013). Both issues made the test invalid as an assessment for both students and educators. The teachers organized, exploited inconsistencies and errors in their district’s policy, and successfully had the test dropped from their school’s program (Micucci, 2013). Similarly acting as street-level bureaucrats, a few teachers in Anoka-Hennepin began reinterpreting their roles within the district’s restructured yet ill-defined neutrality policy by quietly taking “small risks” behind closed doors, challenging queer children’s false assumptions that they were alone in being queer at their schools (Erdely, 2012, p. 57). Larger risks were also taken by those teachers who assumed advisory roles within gay–straight alliances when they were formed (Erdely, 2012; Horner, 2011).
The implications for policymakers are fairly clear: if a new policy deviates from established professional practice, teachers will attempt to reshape the meaning of the policy to comport with their daily realities (Haynes & Licata, 1995; Lipsky, 2010; Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Furthermore, educators are more likely to work in concert to reshape a policy, as befitting their values of social justice, if the policy represents a threat to the well-being of their students. For LGBT students who attend public schools, policymakers should be cognizant that students, educators, parents, and the larger community are increasingly hostile toward policies that threaten students’ welfare and, notably, that the public finally is concerned about LGBT students.
As researchers and educators, an increased awareness of our capacities as street-level bureaucrats presents us with the potential for reshaping public schools’ policies in more socially just ways—especially where policy and law contrasts across local, state, and federal levels. Although this may be a more overtly political strategy, teachers and administrators have long operated as street-level bureaucrats—recrafting policy to meet their local realities. Taking a cue from Edith Windsor, the successful litigant in Windsor v. United States, this strategy is particularly poignant for LGBT youth, many of whom experience little joy in public school settings. We researchers and educators must ensure that the LGBT youth who attend U.S. public schools “don’t postpone [their] joy” (Thrasher, 2013, p. 6).
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1. Although the current nomenclature includes Q with LGBT, Q is a political determination, not precisely a legal determination. To whit, the authors have yet to see a jurist use the word “queer” in a court decision. Consequently, we use the older LGBT, which is not as inclusive as LGBTQ.
2. The status of transgender people in the United States is far more unstable than lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer questioning people. In particular, many states have legal bans for discrimination against LGB people, but not for discrimination against transgender people. Furthermore, transgender people experience the highest rates of discrimination in housing and employment and are at the greatest risk of identity-based violence (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 2013).
3. See (Eskridge, 2000), “The slogan is ‘no promotion of homosexuality.’ In slang, no promo homo. The logical structure of the standard no promo homo argument against the state’s adopting a progay policy, x (or in favor of retaining an antigay policy, y).”
4. See revised policy for more information, http://minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2011/06/documents/anoka-hennepin-sexual-orientation-curriculum-policy.pdf.