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.
Michael McGee, father of plaintiff Damien McGee-Backes, praised the affected students for coming forward. "If it were not for their courage and determination to tell their stories and to stand up and say, 'Enough, I deserve better; we all deserve better,' we would not be on the precipice of not only creating change in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, but also proving a model for change nationally," McGee said.
Anoka-Hennepin officials said that, with help from the U.S. departments of Justice and Education, the district will set a new state standard for anti-bullying efforts.
"Our gay students deserve to feel safe and be safe, just like everyone else in our public schools," said Superintendent Dennis Carlson. "When we have finished this process, we believe we will have developed a model that all school districts can follow."
The lone school board member to vote against the agreement, Kathy Tingelstad, resigned after the vote, citing concerns about the plan's cost, federal intervention in local school practices and the precedent set for other districts.
Under the agreement, the six students will be paid one lump sum of $270,000 by the district's insurance carrier. In addition, the district must:
• Retain a consultant on sex-based harassment to review its policies and procedures.
• Develop and implement a plan for preventing and addressing sex-based harassment of students in middle and high school.
• Enhance training of staff and students on the issue.
• Retain a mental health consultant to address needs of students victimized by harassment.
"This partnership will strengthen the support that the district provides to all students, including students who are gay or perceived to be gay," said school board Chairman Tom Heidemann. He added that the consent decree builds upon the work the district already has done to step up its anti-bullying efforts, including staff training.
The district had maintained that staff members acted appropriately, but said agreeing to the settlement seemed a better path than continuing litigation.
"At the end of the day, the board would rather focus our limited resources on educating kids and keeping them safe," said Heidemann. The agreement, he said, "likely saved the district millions of dollars and many years of ongoing litigation."
Last month, the school board scrapped its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, which required staff to remain neutral on issues of sexual orientation. The district said replacing it with a Respectful Learning Environment Policy stemmed from staff confusion about the old policy, not the lawsuit, but its repeal had been among its demands.
The basis of the suit, filed on the students' behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, was the contention that the district had violated the students' constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
The settlement comes after national scrutiny of the state's largest district over its handling of issues involving bullying and sexual orientation. In 2009 and 2010, the district was wracked by the suicides of several students. Parents and friends identified some as gay or who had been perceived as gay; some had been bullied.
Over the past school year, the district has increased staff training to counter bullying of all kinds. It adopted a policy that more specifically defines bullying, harassment and expected staff response.
The process leading to adoption of the new respectful learning policy revealed deep divisions in the community. Advocates for GLBT students and staff argued that any policy could squelch expression and label individuals, while the Parents Action League said removing the neutrality policy would open the door to gay activism in the classroom.
Laurie Thompson, spokeswoman for the Parents Action League, called the settlement a "travesty."
The lawsuit, she said in an e-mail, was not about bullying but was meant to "abolish conservative moral beliefs about homosexuality. Making schools safe for 'gay' kids means indoctrinating impressionable, young minds with homosexual propaganda."
But plaintiff Dylon Frei, an Anoka High School freshman, said he was proud that the board approved the settlement, saying everyone deserves a good high school experience. "It's gotten better," he said, adding that he hadn't been bullied in about a month and a half. "That has never happened before. I see change coming, and I'm really glad about it."
Maria Baca • 612-673-4409