Justice Department hails Minn. school settlement

March 6, 2012 - 10:35 PM
School Bullying Minnesota

Student plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin school district, from left, Dylon Frei, Jane Doe, Kyle Rooker, Brittany Geldert, and E.R. walk into a news conference together in Minneapolis, Tuesday, March 6, 2012. The Anoka-Hennepin School Board agreed Monday night to strengthen the district's efforts to prevent sex-based harassment. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, David Joles)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A settlement with Minnesota's largest school district over the harassment and bullying of students who are gay, or perceived to be gay, should serve as a model for other schools in the U.S., federal officials said Tuesday.

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board agreed Monday night to strengthen the district's efforts to prevent sex-based harassment. Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Brooker told reported during a conference call Tuesday that several provisions that are part of the settlement shouldn't cost much for other school districts to adapt, such as conducting anti-bullying surveys; creating a committee of students, parents and teachers to discuss what's working and what's not; identifying "hot spots" on school grounds and on buses that need better supervision; and peer leadership training.

Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division at the U.S. Justice Department, said districts can seek federal dollars and free training and technical help from the Department of Education. "If you're going to try change climate, you've got to have a comprehensive plan," Perez said.

The agreement, which U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen signed Tuesday, settles two lawsuits filed last summer by six current or former students in the suburban Twin Cities district as well as a separate Justice Department civil rights investigation that began in November 2010.

The students challenged a district policy requiring staff to remain neutral when the topic of sexual orientation came up in the classroom, which they claimed was a gag order that prevented teachers from effectively protecting gay and lesbian students. The policy came under fire after six district students committed suicide in less than two years. Some were identified as gay or seen as gay. The policy was replaced last month with one requiring teachers to foster a respectful learning environment for all students, setting the stage for the settlement.

Other key steps the district will take under the settlement include hiring a coordinator to ensure the district meets its obligations; hiring a mental health consultant to review how it assists harassment victims; and ensuring counselors or other mental health professionals are available when those students need help.

The district estimates the hirings and other measures will cost about $500,000 over the five-year agreement.

The Justice Department found sex-based harassment contributed to a "hostile environment" in the district. A court filing Monday night listed 10 current or former students who it said were subjected to severe, pervasive and persistent harassment because they were gay, perceived as gay or failed to conform to gender stereotypes. They reported the abuse, but teachers and administrators failed to protect them, the department alleged.

Two of the 10 committed suicide, the document said. One was harassed throughout middle and high school. Once, the filing said, "two students grabbed his genitals when he was in the hallway and told him he liked it." The abuse continued even though his counselor saw him crying and spoke with him about the incident. The other student, who was in middle school, was harassed and physically abused because "her gender expression did not conform to female stereotypes in appearance," the document said. An assistant principal allegedly told her there was nothing he could do.

Spokeswoman Mary Olson said the district won't comment on the document. "We deny the allegations and are moving forward," she said.

School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said after Monday night's vote that district staff members did their jobs and were professional and caring.

The student-plaintiffs — who will split $270,000 — their parents and attorneys celebrated with a news conference Tuesday.

Ninth-grader Kyle Rooker, 15, said he transferred outside the district after enduring name-calling, being shoved into lockers and even being urinated on because of his fondness for wearing sparkly clothes and singing songs by Cher and Lady Gaga.

"I am happy that this agreement will help the kids at Anoka-Hennepin be able to have a welcoming and safe environment," Kyle said. "I am glad that kids coming up behind me in school won't have to suffer the same things that I did. And, hopefully, kids at Anoka-Hennepin schools will respect one another more, even if they are different."