CHAMPLIN, Minn. – Several current and former students sued Minnesota’s largest school district Thursday, saying its policy requiring staff to remain neutral when sexual orientation is discussed in the classroom prevents teachers from effectively protecting kids perceived as gay from bullying and harassment.

The five plaintiffs contend the Anoka-Hennepin School District failed to protect them from severe bullying and harassment, including physical abuse and verbal slurs. Three of the plaintiffs identify themselves as gay or bisexual and two do not.

“This policy sends the message to kids that who they are is not OK,” said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of two advocacy groups that filed the lawsuit in federal court in Minnesota.

The students are asking the court to block the policy, order effective protections including better training and award them unspecified damages.

“For the last three years kids have been calling me names and shoving me into lockers, desks and walls, just because they say I am different,” 14-year-old Kyle Rooker, one of the plaintiffs, told reporters outside Jackson Middle School. “It got so bad that every day when the bus would arrive at the school, I would want to hide under the chair so I wouldn’t have to go into school, so I wouldn’t be called names or be pushed around and so I wouldn’t have to hear the rumors other kids were spreading about me.”

Sam Wolfe, lead attorney on the case for the center, said his group’s efforts over the last 10 months to resolve dispute with the district failed.