NEW YORK -- A spate of teen suicides linked to anti-gay harassment is prompting school officials nationwide to rethink their efforts against bullying -- and in the process, risk entanglement in a bitter ideological debate.
The conflict: Gay-rights supporters insist that any effective anti-bullying program must include specific components addressing harassment of gay youth. But religious conservatives condemn that approach as an unnecessary and manipulative tactic to sway young people's views of homosexuality.
It's a highly emotional topic. Witness the hate mail -- from the left and right -- directed at Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District while it reviews its anti-bullying strategies in the aftermath of a gay student's suicide.
The invective is "some of the worst I've ever seen," Superintendent Dennis Carlson said. "We may invite the Department of Justice to come in and help us mediate this discussion between people who seem to want to go at each other."
Carlson's district in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis is politically diverse, and there are strong, divided views on how to combat bullying.
"We believe the bullying policy should put the emphasis on the wrong actions of the bullies and not the characteristics of the victims," said Chuck Darrell of the conservative Minnesota Family Council.
That's a wrongheaded, potentially dangerous approach, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network -- which tries to improve the school climate for gay students nationwide.
"Policies have to name the problem in order to have an impact," said GLSEN's executive director, Eliza Byard. "Only the ones that name it see an improvement."
According to a 2009 GLSEN survey of 7,261 students, only 18 percent said their schools had a comprehensive program addressing anti-gay bullying, while gay students in schools that had such programs were less likely to be victimized and more likely to report problems to staff.
Across the political spectrum, every group weighing in on the issue had deplored the recent deaths -- the latest in a long series of suicides over many years by harassed gay teens, but dramatic nonetheless because of the high toll in a short span.
The most recent and highest-profile case involved Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, 18, who killed himself by jumping off the George Washington bridge after his roommate secretly recorded him with another male student, then broadcast the video online.
But at least four younger teens have killed themselves since July after being targeted by anti-gay bullying, including Justin Aaberg, 15, of Andover, Minn., who hanged himself in his room in July.
His friends told his mother he'd been a frequent target of bullies mocking his sexual orientation.
Five other students in his Anoka-Hennepin school district have killed themselves in the past year, and gay-rights advocates say bullying may have played a role in two of these cases as well.
Carlson, the district superintendent, lost a teenage daughter of his own in a car crash, and says he shares the anguish of the parents bereaved by suicide. He acknowledges that a controversial district policy calling for "neutrality" in classroom discussions of sexual orientation may have created an impression among some teachers, students and outsiders that school staff wouldn't intervene aggressively to combat anti-gay bullying.
The district -- Minnesota's largest -- serves nearly 40,000 students in 13 towns. The school board adopted the neutrality policy in 2009 as a balancing act, trying not to offend either liberal or conservative families.
Rebecca Dearing, 17, a junior who belongs to the gay-straight alliance at the district's Champlin Park High School, said the neutrality policy caused teachers to shy away from halting anti-gay harassment -- sometimes leaving her gay friends feeling vulnerable to the point where they don't come to school.
"This shouldn't be a political issue any more, when it's affecting the lives of our students," she said. "It's a human issue that needs to be dealt with. They can be doing more and they're not."
In August, amid the furor over the suicides, the district clarified its anti-bullying program -- saying that it was not governed by the neutrality provision and had always been intended to encourage vigilant, proactive adult intervention to curb anti-gay harassment. Staffers were told failure to intervene would be punished.
Justin Aaberg's mother, Tammy Aaberg, is convinced the broader neutrality policy has been damaging to gay students and wants it changed. She said she heard belatedly from Justin's friends about instances in past years where he was harassed that she was never notified about even through staff members were aware.
Now she sees signs that the district wants to be more diligent, but isn't fully reassured.
"Most of the teachers and principals, and maybe even now the superintendent, they mean well -- they want to intervene," she said. "But the teachers still don't know what they can and can't do."
Nadia Boufous Phelps, the school psychologist at Anoka's Blaine High School, is co-advisor for its gay-straight alliance -- to which 27 of the 3,000 students belong. She welcomes the attempt to clarify the stance toward anti-gay bullying.
"In the past, the staff often would not intervene," she said. "Now the district has come out loud and clear, if you hear "That's so gay,' if you witness anything, you must do something."
Still, she said, "We still have a long way to go"
Carlson says his district, seven years ago, was among the first in the state to implement a comprehensive anti-bullying program. Now he's exasperated by the highly charged, politicized debate that has flared since Aaberg's suicide.
"It's a terribly sensitive situation," he said. "Hurtful statements on either side are not helpful ... and the kids are watching."
Phil Duran, staff attorney for the statewide gay rights group OutFront Minnesota, says Carlson and his colleagues are constrained by school board members who do not want to anger conservative voters in the district.
"They're between a rock and a hard place," he said. "I do think they want to do the right thing -- I don't think they known what the right thing is."
Nationally, the recent suicides have intensified calls on Congress to pass a pending bill, the Safe Schools Improvement Act. It would require schools receiving federal funds to implement bullying prevention programs that specifically address anti-gay harassment.
Supporters of the act say it has bipartisan support, but the likelihood of Democratic losses in the Nov. 2 election cloud its prospects, and it is vehemently opposed by many conservatives.
"A lot of these anti-bullying programs are crossing the lines far beyond bullying prevention into adult-oriented material and politics," said Candi Cushman, education analyst for Focus on the Family. Mission America president Linda Harvey said the act would "incorporate mandatory pro-gay propaganda."
According to GLSEN, 10 states have anti-bullying laws along the lines of the Safe Schools Act -- requiring specific components addressing anti-gay harassment. But gay-rights activists say enforcement and compliance is not uniform.
For example, Dave Reynolds of the Trevor Project, which seeks to combat teen suicides, says many California schools are not in compliance with the state's 10-year-old law. One problem area, he said, is California's Central Valley -- the source of many calls to the Trevor Project's suicide hot line.
Jeffree Merteuil-Clark, 17, is a junior who's active in the gay-straight alliance at Frontier High School in Bakersfield, a Central Valley city not far from Tehachapi. That's the town where 13-year-old Seth Walsh, hanged himself outside his home last month after enduring taunts from classmates about being gay. He died after nine days in a coma.
Merteuil-Clark said the teachers who are sympathetic to bullied gay students tend to be cautious, fearing they might antagonize Kern County school administrators who want to "sweep the problem under the rug."
"Growing up gay in Kern County, you have all this opposition to you," he said. "It does have an impact on you. When you're little, you think the rest of the world hates you."
The debate has proved to be a minefield for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, one of the largest in the nation, as it strives to serve schools ranging from progressive to conservative.
"We have to be extremely careful," said Marlene Snyder, the Olweus development director, describing a community-by-community approach which enables schools to tailor the program as they see fit in regard to anti-gay bullying.
"We've worked in all kinds of schools," Snyder said. "Some have very much taken on the homophobic situation. Other schools won't touch it with a 10-foot pole."
GLSEN sees a mixed picture nationwide -- gay-straight alliances continue to spread, numbering more than 4,000 nationwide, yet nine of 10 gay students in its latest survey reported suffering anti-gay harassment.
Asked for an example of an effective program, GLSEN leader Eliza Byard cited New York City's Respect for All Initiative. The district, which serves 1.1 million students, makes specific mention of sexual orientation in its anti-bullying training for teachers and its materials for students.
"There's always more to do," said Elayna Konstan, head of the Office of School and Youth Development. "We're always trying to do this work better."