Minn. school district settles bullying lawsuits

Anoka-Hennepin School District, Minnesota's largest public school district, announced on Monday evening that it had settled two lawsuits concerning bullying and harassment of students in the district. According to court documents, the decision came after the Department of Justice and the Department of Eduction joined two lawsuits filed by six students alleging widespread discrimination against LGBT students.

Last July, five students filed a lawsuit against the district alleging rampant anti-LGBT bullying and harassment. In August, a sixth student filed a separate suit. The lawsuits came after public outcry from district residents over suicides that many suspected were due to anti-LGBT bullying. The American Independent News Network first wrote about those suicides in August 2010.

In addition to the lawsuits, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education launched an investigation of the district last summer after receiving complaints about bullying and harassment.

According to a court documents released by the school board at Monday night's meeting, the federal government had intervened in the lawsuits by the six students, essentially combining the lawsuits with the federal investigations. The document notes that the DOJ and DOE had filed a "complaint-in-intervention" and became a party to the negotiations.

"After Student Plaintiffs filed their lawsuit and pursuant to the Court’s request, the United States joined the settlement negotiations of the Student Plaintiffs and the District in an attempt to resolve the complaints and avoid protracted litigation," court documents note.

The result of those negotiations was a consent decree between all the parties that will include major changes to the district's anti-bullying programs.

At Monday night's school board meeting, the board immediately voted on the consent decree and quickly left the board room to hold a press conference where representatives of the school district laid out the terms of the settlement.

But one board member, Kathy Tingelstad, promptly resigned in protest after the school board voted to accept the settlement.

Tingelstad, a former Republican member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, lashed out at the federal government for "overstepping their bounds" and called civil rights groups that were representing the students "out-of-state bullies."

The district and attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, two groups who represented the students, had been in negotiations for months. A point of contention pertained to a "no promo homo" policy enacted by the district. That policy limited discussions of LGBT issues in the district's schools.

Last month, the school board voted to rescind that policy. Tingelstad was the lone vote against rescinding the policy. She had aligned herself with the Parents Action League, a group of conservative Christian parents who not only wanted the policy to remain in place, but were also pushing for "ex-gay therapy" to be part of school curriculum.

Lawyers for the students and the federal government pressed for more than just a repeal of the "no promo homo" policy, and the eventual agreement between the board, the lawyers, and the federal government is 61 pages.

Five years of monitoring

According to court documents, which will need to be approved by an administrative law judge in the next few weeks, the district will provide $270,000 to be distributed among the students who filed the lawsuits.

The district will have to hire an "equity consultant" to evaluate the district's bullying and harassment policies and a coordinator to implement and monitor bullying prevention efforts. The district will also need to ensure that a counselor is available to students at all times during school hours, and new trainings will be required for students and staff on bullying.

In addition, the settlement requires the district to improve its annual anti-bullying survey, hire a mental health consultant to assess current practices, and expand its existing bullying prevention task force.

Finally, the district has agreed to allow the DOJ and DOE to monitor the district's compliance with the consent decree for five years.

Damien McGee, one of the students involved in the lawsuit, said following the press conference, "I'm just really glad other kids won't have to go through what I went through."

McGee went through a lot. The 15-year old doesn't identify as gay but has two dads. According to the lawsuit against the district, Damien was stabbed in the neck with a pencil, called names, and at one point a classmate said to him, "Your dads are gay, so you’re going to be gay, so why don’t you just go suck your dads’ cocks.”

Damien said the school failed to intervene appropriately in those cases.

Of the agreement, he said, "I'm so proud that the school district agreed to do this."

'A model for other schools'

All of the parties involved said that the framework developed could serve as a model for other schools.

“Harassment by or against students in schools is unacceptable, and not a ‘rite of passage’ to be endured by anyone. Parents are entitled to know that their children will be safe in school every day,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. “We commend the Anoka-Hennepin School District for its willingness to tackle sex-based harassment and for working collaboratively with the federal government to address concerns across the district. We hope the district will become a model for schools nationwide by providing a safe and nurturing learning environment for all students free from bullying and harassment.”

Many, including the school district, said the agreement will benefit students.

“Unfortunately, this district had become notorious for anti-LGBT hostility and discrimination," said Sam Wolfe, an attorney for the SPLC’s LGBT Project. "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.”

School Board Chair 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. ... Our goal has always been, and remains, making sure our schools are safe for all our students."

Superintendent Dennis Carlson said the agreement could serve as a model for other school districts in the state.

"When we have finished this process, we believe we will have developed a model that all school districts can follow," he said.