Elated and feeling vindicated by the settlement of their discrimination suit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District, six teens on Tuesday celebrated an agreement that federal officials called a breakthrough in efforts to combat the bullying of gay and lesbian students in schools from coast to coast.
"I feel alive," Brittany Geldert, a Champlin Park freshman, said at a Minneapolis news conference. "I can live the life I was meant to live and not dwell in the past."
Another plaintiff, Dylon Frei, an Anoka High School freshman, said that speaking out has brought an unexpected level of support, even from some of the kids who used to torment him. He said some have told him, "'I was so stupid, I'm sorry.' That just feels great because they know what they did wrong and they're going to stop it and they're becoming better people."
In a telephone news conference, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez echoed district officials' hopes that the process will result in lasting benefits for students and serve as a model for schools across the nation.
Perez called the settlement a "comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform that will enhance the district's policies, training and other efforts to ensure that every student ... is free from sex-based harassment." He noted current district efforts and said the accord will bolster them.
The consent decree, which the Anoka-Hennepin school board approved 5-1 Monday night, was signed Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen. It creates a five-year anti-harassment partnership between the district and U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, which began a civil rights investigation of the district in November 2010.
The settlement resolves the inquiry and the lawsuit, which had alleged that the district had inadequately responded to the students' claims of severe and persistent harassment based on real or perceived sexual orientation.
Accord called unprecedented
Although there have been other cases of the federal government overseeing similar court orders in school, the scope of this effort to counter harassment is unprecedented, said Greg Brooker, who oversees the civil division at the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota.
"This is the most comprehensive and detailed school harassment agreement in the history of the Department of Justice," he said.
The settlement requires the district to create a comprehensive data system, offer training for students and staff, seek out and rectify "hot spots" for bullying and harassment, make progress reports to the Justice Department, add the positions of equity coordinator and Title IX coordinator to oversee its efforts, and designate a liaison at each middle and high school. Some of those efforts had already been undertaken by the district.
The lone no vote at Monday's school board meeting came from Kathy Tingelstad, who resigned from her post after expressing deep concerns about the cost of the prescribed measures and about the precedent of having the federal government intervene in the running of a local school district.
Brooker said that the settlement is "not a federal takeover" and that, within the broad requirements of the consent decree, the district will retain control in hiring staff and shaping its approach.
Results of civil rights inquiry
On Tuesday, the Justice Department released findings of the civil rights investigation, some of which paralleled claims in the students' lawsuit. The report concluded that "the implementation and interpretation of the District's policies and procedures by District personnel have contributed to the hostile environment" for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
In its response, the district signaled a desire to move on. A statement from spokeswoman Mary Olson said, "We are not commenting on this document. We deny the allegations and are moving forward."
The settlement also allowed the district to maintain that its staff had responded appropriately and barred the plaintiffs from assigning blame to the district in the future.
Pain, relief, hope
Tuesday morning's news conference was held at the offices of Faegre Baker Daniels, which joined the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights in representing the students plaintiffs during 12 mediation sessions over the suit.
Five of the students entered a conference room hand in hand and smiling and assembled with their lawyers and parents.
Their words reflected some lingering pain from their experiences but also pride at their ability to effect change and hope for the future.
Like others, Ebonie Richardson said that she felt empowered by success and that she hoped others would benefit.
"Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself," said the Champlin Park freshman, as her mother, Quana Hollie, leaned in and whispered in her ear. Ebonie smiled. "And my voice can be heard," she added.
Kyle Rooker, now a freshman at Lionsgate Academy, a Crystal charter school, expressed relief that the bullying is over.
"I feel like myself again," he said. Lighter, his mother suggested? "No, I think of it more as a demon I'm completely destroying."
A 19-year-old former student still identified only as Jane Doe called Tuesday "the greatest day of my life. It is inspiring to all of us to know our voices have been heard and we can make a change. It is a powerful and moving day for all of us."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409