Minnesota School District Agrees to Protect Students from Anti-Gay Bullying in Settlement with SPLC
Minnesota’s largest school district has agreed to adopt a wide-ranging plan to protect LGBT students from bullying and harassment, in a settlement that will resolve an SPLC lawsuit.
A consent decree was approved by the Anoka-Hennepin School Board in suburban Minnesota tonight.
“This historic agreement marks a fresh start for the Anoka-Hennepin School District,” said SPLC attorney Sam Wolfe. “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.”
The agreement also will resolve a separate complaint brought by the U.S. Justice Department, which today released the findings of an investigation conducted jointly with the U.S. Department of Education.
The SPLC sued the Anoka-Hennepin district in July on behalf of five students who faced a constant torrent of anti-gay slurs due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation. Students were also physically attacked – in some cases choked, shoved, urinated on and even stabbed with a pencil.
The lawsuit charged that the school district’s “gag” policy – which hampered the efforts of teachers to address the harassment – stigmatized gay and lesbian students and helped perpetuate the abuse. In several cases, officials told the harassed students to “lay low” or “try to stay out of people’s way.”
“No one should have to go through the kind of harassment that I did,” said Dylon Frei, one of the plaintiffs in the SPLC case. “I am happy this agreement includes real changes that will make our schools safer and more welcoming for other kids.”
The district’s 18-year-old gag policy was repealed in February after the SPLC and other groups urged district officials to end it. It has been replaced with a policy that requires district staff to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, including LGBT students.
The decree, which still must be approved by U.S. District Judge Joan N. Ericksen, outlines specific steps the district must take to address and prevent anti-LGBT harassment, including fully investigating reports of harassment and instituting training that specifically addresses anti-LGBT bias. The departments of Justice and Education will monitor the district’s compliance for five years.
Other steps required by the decree include:
- The district will hire a harassment prevention official to lead efforts to eliminate and prevent future instances of harassment in the district. It also will hire a mental health consultant to assess how the district helps harassed students. The district’s annual anti-bullying survey will be strengthened.
- The district’s policies and practices regarding harassment will be reviewed by the Great Lakes Equity Center, which will recommend revisions. The district will work with the center to identify harassment “hot spots” in its schools, on school buses and in other locations. The center is a federally funded organization that helps public schools promote equal educational opportunities.
- The district will work with its harassment prevention official and the equity center to provide anti-harassment training to students and district employees who interact with students.
- The district will ensure that a counselor or other qualified mental health professional is available during school hours for students. It will develop procedures for parental notification that are sensitive to a student’s right of privacy regarding his or her real or perceived orientation or gender identity.
- The district will improve a recently formed harassment prevent task force which will advise the district on how to promote a positive educational climate.
Under the decree, six students who brought lawsuits against the district will receive a total of $270,000 in damages.
The investigation by the departments of Justice and Education found that the school district violated Title IX and Title IV of the Education Code by permitting a hostile environment against students on the basis of sex, including the failure to conform to sex stereotypes. Federal investigators reviewed more than 7,000 district documents and included interviews with more than 60 individuals, including current and former students, parents, district staff, teachers and administrators.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and Faegre Baker Daniels, LLP, served as co-counsel on the SPLC’s case. NCLR, with local counsel Culberth & Lienemann, LLP, brought a lawsuit on behalf of a sixth student plaintiff.