It has been announced that the Anoka-Hennepin School District has entered into an agreement to dismiss a lawsuit brought on behalf of students that said teachers had not done enough to prevent anti-LGBT bullying due to the district’s former, and highly controversial, gag-policy on discussing sexual orientation. However, the district is still denying any wrongdoing.
The Anoka-Hennepin School District pledged Monday to improve the treatment of gay and lesbian students as part of a settlement that closes a long legal chapter in its struggles over bullying and sexual orientation.
The 5-1 school board vote, which resolves both a federal civil rights investigation and a lawsuit filed last summer by six former and current students, was received with cheers and hugs among plaintiffs and their supporters. The suit had said the district did not adequately respond to persistent physical and verbal harassment based on real or perceived sexual orientation.
The settlement creates a five-year partnership between the school district and the federal departments of Justice and Education to help create programs and procedures to improve the school climate for all students.
The lawsuit claimed that the district failed to act on bullying related to LGBT identity and that in doing so it contravened the United States Constitution and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. A federal investigation sought to examine whether the district was in violation of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972.
While still maintaining that “the District determined through its exhaustive investigation that the district’s administrators and teachers dealt with the alleged harassment in a professional, timely, and appropriate manner,” — this despite a federal investigation that found evidence to the contrary — the District has entered into a consent decree that “recognizes the District’s continuing commitment to addressing and preventing harassment of all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming students and those perceived as such in district schools.”
The decree sets out the need for expert evaluations of the district’s handling of bullying cases designed to “improve the school climate and enhance training of staff and students.”
It reportedly mandates that the District:
- Retain an Equity Consultant to provide a systemic review and recommend any needed revisions to district policies related to harassment, as well as district procedures relating to the investigation and response to incidents of harassment, parental notification, and tracking of harassment incidents.
- Hire a Title IX/Equity Coordinator who will implement district policies and procedures, monitor complaints, ensure that district administrators and staff adhere to sex and sexual orientation-based discrimination laws, and identify trends and common areas of concern.
- Work with the Equity Consultant and Title IX Coordinator/Equity Coordinator to develop improved and effective trainings on harassment for all students and employees who interact with students.
- Ensure that a counselor or other qualified mental health professional to be available during school hours for students in need.
- Hire a mental health consultant to review and access current practices in the district relating to assisting students who are subject to harassment.
- Provide additional specificity to further strengthen its annual anti-bullying survey.
- Expand the district’s harassment-prevention task force formed the summer of 2011 to advise the district regarding how to best foster a positive educational climate for all students.
- Work with the Equity Consultant to further identify hot spots in district schools where harassment is or becomes problematic, including outdoor locations and on school buses, and work with the Equity Consultant to develop actions that better align with a safe, welcoming school environment.
Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson is quoted as saying that the consent decree is “a positive statement of the continuing effort to ensure a welcoming environment for all students and families in our district. All students deserve a safe learning environment, and the District is looking forward to continuing to broaden and strengthen its commitment to provide anti-harassment and anti-bullying programs.”
Superintendent Carlson reportedly adds however: “The District and its staff want the public to know that there is another side to the story that we have been and remain unable to tell due to data privacy laws: without exception, our staff investigated and responded properly to reported harassment. They disciplined students found to have bullied or harassed other students. However, no one would deny that bullying and harassment are real problems in our society and must be more thoroughly and consistently addressed.”
The agreement also reportedly requires that the DOJ and OCR monitor and assist in the district’s implementation of the consent decree through 2017.
“We approach the monitoring role of the DOJ and OCR in a spirit of collaboration, as it will provide an opportunity for continued communication on this important concern. Our efforts to further address harassment related to sexual orientation will result in positive change in our schools that will extend far beyond the five years of the consent decree,” Supt. Carlson says on the District’s website.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which sued on behalf of students, reports that under the decree, six students who brought lawsuits against the district will receive a total of $270,000 in damages.
Despite a denial of wrongdoing from the District, the SPLC notes: “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 district’s 18-year-old gag policy on sexual orientation was replaced last month with a policy designed to generate “a respectful learning environment in which teachers facilitate student discussions of contentious topics in a balanced and impartial manner.”
The District had previously considered a policy that would have banned “controversial” topics though rejected that after an outcry. It has been remarked that while the new policy is an improvement on the old gag rule and the ‘controversial” topics proposal, it still goes out of its way to side-step affirming that LGBT identity is normal and healthy.
The District has faced intense scrutiny in the wake of a number of teen suicides in the area, many of them at least partly related to bullying.