MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
The Department of Education sent a warning to schools today that failing to stop bullying could violate federal anti-discrimination laws. The department says there's been an increase in complaints about the harassment of certain groups, including gay and lesbian students. Some advocacy groups are pushing for tolerance toward gays as a solution to the problem.
But as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, anti-bullying programs are now becoming part of the culture wars.
A caution first, though: There's language in her report that some people may find offensive.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Justin Anderson graduated from Blaine High School outside Minneapolis last year. He says his teenage years were a living hell. From sixth grade on, he heard the same taunts.
Mr. JUSTIN ANDERSON: I began hearing people say things like, fags should just disappear so we don't have to deal with them anymore. And, fags are disgusting and sinful. And still, there's nobody intervening. And I began to feel so worthless and ashamed and unloved that I began to think about taking my life.
HAGERTY: Justin told his story to the Anoka-Hennepin School Board last month. The school district is reeling from a spate of student suicides in the past year; four of them linked to anti-gay bullying. Justin Anderson survived.
(Soundbite of song, "Incinerate")
HAGERTY: Justin Aaberg did not. Aaberg loved the cello. He was in eighth grade when he wrote this number called "Incinerate."
(Soundbite of song, "Incinerate")
HAGERTY: In July, his mother found her 15-year-old son hanging from his bed frame. Justin was openly gay. He had plenty of friends, but he was repeatedly bullied in his school.
Ms. TAMMY AABERG: They were calling him faggot, you're gay, the Bible says that you're going to burn hell, and God doesn't love you, things like that.
HAGERTY: His mother, Tammy, says the school never called her, even after her son was physically assaulted. She was furious at first, but then began to understand why.
Ms. AABERG: A lot of teachers that I have talked to do care and do want to do something, but they don't know what to do because they're afraid to lose their job if they step in and they're not neutral.
HAGERTY: Aaberg says teachers felt they couldn't get involved, even when her son was bullied, because of a school district policy that prohibits employees from taking sides on matters regarding sexual orientation. The district says the policy is meant to apply only to the curriculum. But teachers say it's so broadly written that they're loath to intervene, even when they hear anti-gay slurs.
Ms. BARB ANDERSON (Volunteer Coordinator, Minnesota Family Council): There is no confusion on this. Any teacher can stop bullying in its tracks, and should.
HAGERTY: That's Barb Anderson, who works for the Minnesota Family Council, an evangelical group. Anderson deplores bullying but wants to keep the policy because she says controversial topics, like sexual orientation, should be taught in the home or church, not in school.
And she believes that changing the policy to allow such discussions is a ploy to normalize homosexuality for kids.
Ms. ANDERSON: It becomes homosexual advocacy in the classroom when you allow this controversial curriculum to come in under the guise of anti-bullying.
HAGERTY: Anderson says she's already seen that happen in nearby Minneapolis, where she says gay-friendly curricula are teaching kids that homosexuality is acceptable and the Bible is wrong.
And her arguments are echoing across the country. Conservative groups want to stop what they see as an attempt by gay rights organizations to get a foothold in public schools.
Tony Perkins, president of the evangelical Family Research Council, says the gay activists are exploiting the concern over bullying.
Mr. TONY PERKINS (President, Family Research Council): There's no correlation between in-acceptance of homosexuality and depression and suicide.
HAGERTY: Rather, he says, there's another factor that leads kids to kill themselves.
Mr. PERKINS: These young people who do identify as gay or lesbian, we know from the social science that they do have a higher rate of depression and a propensity to suicide because of that internal conflict.
HAGERTY: That's why he wants to confront gay activism in public schools. His group supports the Day of Truth, when Christian high schoolers make their case that homosexuality is a sin.
But Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical who teaches psychology at Grove City College, says there's a problem with this argument. Many of the kids who commit suicide are not gay.
Dr. WARREN THROCKMORTON (Associate Professor of Psychology, Grove City College): The common element is not gay identification. The common element is anti-gay harassment. So it isn't a matter of them being gay and unhappy. It's a matter of others tormenting them with gay slurs.
HAGERTY: Throckmorton says a growing number of Christian conservatives are questioning the hard-line theological approach.
Albert Mohler at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary criticized Christian conservatives for, quote, "homophobia." And earlier this month, Exodus International, a group that believes people can be freed from homosexuality through Jesus, pulled its support for the Day of Truth.
And so there's an ongoing dilemma: How do parents and schools protect vulnerable kids without turning schools into a battleground for the culture wars?
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.