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Graduation ceremonies this week are bringing down the curtain on a momentous, sometimes wrenching school year for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
Heading into summer, students and staffers describe change and growth in a district that drew widespread attention for problems with bullying -- although there's still much to do.
A defining moment arrived in March, when the district settled a federal investigation and a lawsuit over charges that it had failed to respond adequately to bullying of students who were gay or perceived to be. The agreement set up a five-year partnership between the district and the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education while calling for a series of educational and other steps.
Greg Brooker, who oversees the civil division at the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota, called it "the most comprehensive and detailed school harassment agreement in the history of the Department of Justice."
Before that, the district had already stepped up efforts against bullying and scrapped a policy that had become a flashpoint: the "neutrality policy," which required teachers to remain neutral on issues of sexual orientation. The move to replace it highlighted deep ideological divisions within the community, as evidenced by heated testimony at school board meetings.
All of this played out under a national spotlight, and as the district continues to heal from the suicides of seven students between 2009 and 2011; friends and families identified three as gay and bullied.
When the settlement was reached, federal and district officials said they hoped it would serve as a model for schools across the nation.
A look at where things stand as the school year ends:
Post-settlement: Early steps
The district is continuing to examine its policies and procedures, with help from the Great Lakes Equity Center, a federally funded resource at Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. It also is in the process of hiring a Title IX consultant and a mental health coordinator, as called for under the settlement. Additional training for staff members is in the works.
In March, Anoka-Hennepin officials had said the remedies would cost the district about $500,000. This week, Associate Superintendent Jinger Gustafson, who has overseen the district's bullying prevention efforts this year, said Anoka-Hennepin will meet the requirements of the settlement and keep students safe.
Students: It gets better
Interviews with three dozen students at Andover, Champlin Park and Coon Rapids high schools found a more inclusive culture at schools.
"You want to be friends with a lot of people, and not have people not like you because you're talking crap about someone that's gay," Champlin Park senior Kelsey Stover said.
Many students said they never had experienced bullying personally but knew someone who had. They said they felt more aware than in previous years of where to go if they needed to talk, about problems with bullies or other issues. They also said the student suicides had made them more aware of the power of words to wound.
Several students said the media attention unfairly cast a shadow on the whole district.
It "made us look like trash," Coon Rapids sophomore Madison Niskla said. "They blew everything out of proportion and made it look like a horrible place to go to school. And it's not. We have issues just like any other high school."
Teachers: More training
Teachers Martha Pedersen and Jefferson Fietek, who were early critics of the neutrality policy, said more training is needed to help staff understand policies and how to implement them. They praised a CLIMB Theatre production in January that presented vignettes of situations and how teachers might respond.
Pedersen said she appreciates Superintendent Dennis Carlson's efforts to hear out students in the Gay-Straight Alliance club she has mentored for 14 years.
Opponent's view: Bad precedent
Kathy Tingelstad, the lone school board member to vote against the March settlement, resigned the evening it was approved. She said she stands by her contention that implementing it will cost far more than the district has claimed so far and that it sets a dangerous precedent of federal involvement in local schools.
"The majority of the people who live in Anoka-Hennepin are supportive of my position," she said. "I've heard from hundreds of them. Literally, that's without any outreach at all."
Members of the Parents Action League, which led the opposition to policy changes in the district and blasted the consent decree, declined to comment for this article. The league had said that scrapping the neutrality policy would open the door to gay activism in the classroom.
District: Working together
Gustafson said she thinks centralized training helped create a sense of shared purpose and values.
She acknowledged that the district's work has been contentious but said she understands why adults -- especially parents -- are passionate.
"That's because their students are their most prized possession and they are going to advocate for their student."
At the time of the settlement, the district maintained that its staff members acted appropriately but said it seemed a better path to settle and focus on helping kids than to continue litigation
An outside voice: Lessons gained
Officials elsewhere have been paying attention. Keith Lester, superintendent of the neighboring Brooklyn Center School District, said Anoka-Hennepin's experiences serve as a lesson on many levels.
"It brought home the severity and the concerns around bullying and specific to sexual identity," he said. "I like to think that I'm pretty aware and sensitive of it, but you don't think of it on a day-to-day basis, in the classrooms, in the hallway, on the buses, everywhere."
Even if a district has the right policies in place, he said, people have to know them.
He said Anoka-Hennepin's ability to hear out people of different ideologies, then take action, was a lesson in leadership during a time of political antipathy.
"You have to listen to everyone, and then you have to act within the law. Then you have to act on behalf of the kids."
Plaintiff: No regrets
Dylon Frei started his freshman year at Anoka High School as one of the six current and former students who were plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the district. He's ending the year feeling stronger and safer.
"Kids are more aware that what they did was wrong, and that we should all be there for each other," he said. "Teachers are more aware of what kids are doing, and more aware that kids need teachers need to deal with these types of situations better."
The outcome of the suit, he said, has "given me more strength to learn that it does get better. If you fight for what you believe in, it will make your life way better and you'll become stronger as a person."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409
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