A lesbian couple at the heart of a lawsuit seeking the right to walk as a couple in a pep fest at Champlin Park High School will be allowed to do so, according to an agreement reached Saturday after a six-hour mediation session.
In exchange, the lawsuit filed Friday against the high school and the Anoka-Hennepin School District on behalf of seniors Desiree Shelton and Sarah Lindstrom was dismissed, according to a joint statement released by the district and attorneys for the girls.
"All parties are pleased to announce that we have worked together, collaboratively, to arrive at an arrangement for introductions of elected royalty that is respectful and inclusive of all students," said the statement revealing the new arrangement, which will allow each member of the 24-person royalty court to "select a meaningful person in their life" to escort them in the coronation procession at the Snow Days Pep Fest and winter formal dance in the school's gym. The new plan will allow Shelton and Lindstrom to walk together at those events, which are likely to be held Monday, though school officials are considering pushing them back a few days to give students more time to choose escorts.
"I'm feeling great about this whole situation and how well it was resolved," Shelton said after the mediation session, which she and Lindstrom attended. "I'm pretty excited that I'm going to be able to walk with my girlfriend at Pep Fest."
Anoka-Hennepin school board chairman Tom Heidemann called Saturday's agreement, reached before Judge Susan R. Nelson in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, a "win-win response to the situation" that shows respect to everyone involved.
The school's decision to change its tradition of having the students walk in as couples in favor of having them accompanied by an adult sparked the federal lawsuit filed Friday on the teens' behalf by representatives of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Faegre & Benson law firm. The lawsuit accused the school district of discriminating against gay and lesbian students and requested a restraining order against the school's rule change as well as damages.
School district officials had maintained that their decision was intended to stress that students should be honored as individuals -- not by sexual preference.
The lawsuit, which was "amicably" dismissed, according to both sides, now will be viewed as an opportunity for the school to consider its policy regarding activities "that will make our school communities inclusive and will enable us to realize the district-wide objective of honoring all students," according to the statement.
Students elect the 24 members of the Snow Days royalty. Twelve seniors and four students from each of the Brooklyn Park school's other three grades are chosen, with an equal number of boys and girls. Shelton and Lindstrom were voted for by their friends, and claimed that two boys were willing to walk together to allow the girls to enter as a couple.
Agreement pleases many
Attorney Sam Wolfe of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who helped represent the girls, said although he couldn't discuss details of the mediation, attorneys from both sides expressed admiration at the girls' leadership and willingness to challenge the district. In the wake of tragedy that included a number of suicides in the district, it was a "beacon for better days ahead."
"Hopefully it's a better place, a safer place, a kinder place for LGBT people," he said. "Courageous individuals like Des and Sarah really make that type of progress possible."
Chris Stoll, senior staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called the agreement "the right thing" on the part of the school."
"Research has shown that there's really nothing that improves the outcome for LGBT teens more than accepting families and schools," he said.
The news was also met with excitement within the district.
"I'm so happy," said English teacher Jann Garofano, who has worked with the school's Gay Straight Alliance in the past. "It's good to see [school officials] come down on the right side, and I'm really proud. It helps make this type of coronation more meaningful for all."
Shannon Haver, a member of the school's Gay Straight Alliance, said she was thrilled with the decision and glad the dispute didn't escalate. She's excited not only for her friends Shelton and Lindstrom, she said, but for all LGBT students who won't have to face the same challenge.
"It'll be great to see them together" at the pep fest, she said.
Shelton said she and Lindstrom's intent from the beginning was to make a positive statement on behalf of LGBT students. She added that they couldn't have done so without supportive family and friends.
"We just wanted to put forth a positive outlook and change that affects students in a way that they're not ashamed of themselves and are comfortable being who they are," she said. "It's really all we wanted to do."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921