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Topics In the News
 
Troubled Minnesota School District Settles Bullying Lawsuits
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 03/06/12
Last updated on: 03/07/12
 
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Champlin Park High School, one of the many schools affected by the legal settlement.

On March 5, 2012, the troubled Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota voted to settle lawsuits alleging bullying of gay and lesbian students by acceding to a consent agreement with the Department of Justice.

The settlement comes less than a day after the Department of Justice, as the culmination of an investigation launched in November 2010, filed a federal lawsuit against the district alleging that it had violated students' constitutional rights, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Education Amendments of 1972.

The consent agreement settles the DOJ complaint as well as earlier suits filed on behalf of individual students by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the law firms of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, and Culberth & Lienemann LLP.

As Chris Geidner reports in MetroWeekly, the DOJ investigation, which was conducted in cooperation with the Department of Education, details specific examples of discriminatory treatment faced by 10 students in the district.

The complaint, which was signed by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, charges that district personnel frequently ignored sex-based harassment allegations, and when the district did respond to reports of sex-based harassment, "the District's response improperly placed the burden of stopping the harassment on the student being harassed. . . . The District knew its responses to sex-based harassment were inadequate because the harassment continued and in certain instances escalated."

"In sum, students in the District experienced and reported verbal and physical sex-based harassment because of their gender nonconformity. . . . Based on this evidence, a hostile environment based on sex exists in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the District knew or should have known about the hostile environment, and the District has failed to address it."

The Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest in Minnesota and located within the Congressional district of former Republican Presidential candidate Michelle Bachman, has been at the center of the national discussion of school bullying.

In 2009 and 2010, the district was wracked by the suicides of nine students. Some of the students who committed suicide were gay or had been perceived as gay and some of them had been bullied repeatedly and mercilessly.

The district has an ugly history of anti-gay activism. In 1995, it adopted a health curriculum policy saying that "homosexuality will not be discussed as a normal or valid lifestyle." This policy was replaced in 2009 with the so-called "neutrality policy," which said that "staff in the course of their professional duties shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation."

The "neutrality policy" was attacked by glbtq and anti-bullying activists for promoting a hostile environment and for tying the hands of faculty members and administrators in protecting gay and lesbian students.

Finally, in February 2012, after a Rolling Stone article devastatingly exposed the bullying routinely experienced by glbtq students in the district, the School Board replaced the "neutrality policy" with a broader "Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy" that apparently allows teachers and administrators to protect students.

To settle the lawsuits, the district has agreed to take significant action to prevent harassment of students who are or are perceived to be gay or lesbian or gender non-conforming, as well as those who have friends or parents who are glbtq. Under the agreement, which must be signed by a federal judge, the Departments of Justice and Education will monitor the district for five years. In addition, they have agreed to make a one-time payment of $270,000 to be divided among the six plaintiffs who filed individual lawsuits.

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, at a School Board meeting on March 5, the district, on a 5-1 vote, pledged to improve the treatment of gay and lesbian students.

The vote to resolve the lawsuits was received with cheers and hugs among plaintiffs and their supporters.

The lone board member who voted against the settlement, Kathy Tingelstad, promptly resigned. The Republican former state representative immediately adopted the currently fashionable pose of bigots by claiming that she was victimized by gay bullies. The former Republican state representative said the settlement was a result of pressure from outside groups and would be costly to the cash-strapped district. "Like a target of bullying, I choose to leave the situation by resigning--instead of fighting back against the out-of-state bullies," she said.

In an e-mail, she said the lawsuit was not about bullying but was meant to "abolish conservative moral beliefs about homosexuality. Making schools safe for 'gay' kids means indoctrinating impressionable, young minds with homosexual propaganda."

Her mantra was echoed by Laurie Thompson, spokesperson for the anti-gay Parents Action League, who called the settlement a "travesty."

However, Anoka-Hennepin officials said that, with help from the U.S. departments of Justice and Education, the district will set a new state standard for anti-bullying efforts."Our gay students deserve to feel safe and be safe, just like everyone else in our public schools," said Superintendent Dennis Carlson, who had previously denied that any students had been bullied in the district. "When we have finished this process, we believe we will have developed a model that all school districts can follow."

School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said, "This partnership will strengthen the support that the district provides to all students, including students who are gay or perceived to be gay." He added that the consent decree builds upon the work the district already has done to step up its anti-bullying efforts, including staff training.

"At the end of the day, the board would rather focus our limited resources on educating kids and keeping them safe," said Heidemann. The agreement, he said, "likely saved the district millions of dollars and many years of ongoing litigation."

Dylon Frei, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a news release, "No one should have to go through the kind of harassment that I did. I am happy this agreement includes real changes that will make our schools safer and more welcoming for other kids."

Sam Wolfe, an attorney for the SPLC's LGBT Project, pointed out the district's past while remaining hopeful about the settlement, saying, "This historic agreement marks a fresh start for the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Unfortunately, this district had become notorious for anti-LGBT hostility and discrimination. This consent decree sets the stage for Anoka-Hennepin to become a model for other school districts to follow in creating more respectful learning environments for all students in a thoughtful, systemic, and proactive way."

Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, emphasized the broader implications of the agreement: "This is an important step toward making LGBT and gender non-conforming students feel safe and welcome in district schools. The district has committed to a detailed long-term plan to prevent and address harassment, as well as ongoing review of its implementation of the plan by federal agencies."

Michael McGee, father of plaintiff Damien McGee-Backes, praised the affected students for coming forward. "If it were not for their courage and determination to tell their stories and to stand up and say, 'Enough, I deserve better; we all deserve better,' we would not be on the precipice of not only creating change in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, but also proving a model for change nationally," McGee said.

The Department of Justice complaint may be found here.

The consent agreement may be found here.

In the video below MSNBC news anchor Thomas Roberts discusses the suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin School District with the Trevor Project's David McFarland.

In the video below one of the plaintiffs discusses the reason she joined the lawsuit.

 
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