A year after district's landmark settlement, challenges remain.
Long after her hospitalizations for having had suicidal thoughts, Brittany Geldert would lie in bed each morning, debating whether to go to school.
"I'd finally get up, look in the mirror, put on my makeup and hide myself behind my bangs," recalled Geldert, one of six students who filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 against the Anoka-Hennepin School District over severe bullying and harassment they endured. "I'd hide behind my bangs and go, hoping to open some eyes."
The 16-year-old sophomore at Champlin Park High School now prefers to be called Lane, not Brittany, but she says the biggest change this school year has been in how she and other students in the district's gay and lesbian community are treated.
Nearly 12 months after a landmark settlement and a detailed anti-bullying consent decree adopted by Minnesota's largest school district, school officials, an attorney for the LGBT Rights Project and students applaud Anoka-Hennepin's effort to confront harassment -- even though bullying on the Internet, students and Superintendent Dennis Carlson agree, is as serious and cruel as ever.
'It's All About Respect'
"Things are a lot better," said Geldert, who goes to a school where "It's All About Respect" signs line the walls. "In middle school, I got shoved into lockers and once, almost got pushed into a trash can.
"Now, I see teachers who feel comfortable talking to gay students. You can actually report things and be confident that teachers will listen and treat everybody like they're normal. That's new."
The March 5, 2012, settlement with the six students created a five-year partnership between the district and the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education. As part of a plan for preventing and addressing sex-based harassment of students, the district keeps detailed records of every reported incident of harassment.
During this school year's first term, a total of 123 incidents of sexual harassment were reported within the district. More than half were in middle schools and involved inappropriate comments that included discriminatory words, according to the district. Nearly all of them stemmed from incidents in classrooms, halls, locker rooms, gymnasiums, cafeterias and school buses.
The district has a no-nonsense disciplinary approach -- including suspensions -- and mandatory personnel training regarding harassment that was underway before the settlement.
But bullying online -- "cyber bullying" -- remains rampant and vicious, according to all two dozen students interviewed by the Star Tribune this week at Champlin Park High, one of five high schools in the district. The cruel comments -- usually on Facebook or Twitter, according to Carlson and the students interviewed -- attack kids for their appearance, race, national origin and perceived sexual orientation.
"The cyber bullying is worse than ever," said Malinda Carisch, 16, a sophomore who describes herself as an active member of the LGBT community.
"Online, people feel they can say anything they want," said Nathel Kaiyeepu, 16, another sophomore. "You can't see them, and they can't see you, but that doesn't mean it hurts any less. I wish the school district would do something."
Carlson thinks it is. Students have received handbooks, watched videos and heard his personal message of what bullying and harassment are and that such behavior will not be tolerated. There is the mandatory teacher and staff training. There is Gay Straight Alliance adviser and Title IX training.
"This is a doable job," he said. "We're a long way from eliminating bullying from our society, but things are better in the classrooms and in the hallways. Adults are more responsible."
The Internet is another matter, he acknowledges. "We're aware of it, and we won't tolerate it," he said. "But some of it's done anonymously."
A 2012 district survey found that 1 percent of students said other students bullied them by computer, cellphone or other electronic device every day; 2 percent said it happened regularly, 9 percent said sometimes and 88 percent said never. A 2010 district survey, using a different scale, found that 2 percent of students reported being cyber-bullied five or more times a week; 2 percent, two to four times a week; 2 percent, one time a week; 8 percent, less than once a week, and 86 percent, never.
Based on his conversations with students, Carlson senses that cyber bullying is increasing, but that more students are not experiencing it themselves; rather, they're seeing others bullied through online posts.
One point of contention this school year has involved the district's Anti-Bullying/Anti-Harassment Task Force, a seemingly unlikely source of controversy. It's a 26-member group of students, staff, faculty, parents and community members that was appointed in the fall to advise the district on "how best to foster a positive educational climate."
Detractors criticized the school board's decision to include Bryan Lindquist, a member of the socially conservative Parents Action League that faulted the March settlement and the district's anti-bullying efforts. By December, more than 2,400 names were on a petition asking for his removal, saying that he "uses his personal faith as a weapon and represents the anti-LGBTQ bigotry that is STILL hurting kids in our district."
Lindquist, who remains on the Task Force, did not return calls for this story.
Last year's settlement came as the district operated under a national spotlight. It mourned the suicides of seven students between 2009 and 2011, three of whom friends and families identified as gay and bullied.
Overall, many people -- including Tammy Aaberg, who has fought to change the district's culture since her son, Justin, committed suicide in 2010 -- feel a sense of hope, based on the district's new policies.
Sam Wolfe is an Alabama-based attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented the six students and their families in the 2011 suit. He said not to expect overnight miracles to correct problems that have likely existed for decades.
"There's a long history here," he said, "but now there's a plan in place. Does this mean there will be no more bullying? No. Does it mean there will be no more teachers with anti-gay sentiments who will say stupid things? No.
"But there's an awareness now. We see staff willing to speak out. The climate of fear of the past is melting away."
For students like Geldert -- who dreams of becoming a professional singer and musician, or a tattoo artist, or joining the Marines -- there's a chance.
"I'm not terrified to go to school anymore," she said. "I don't feel like navigating over minefields. We're all people; we're all supposed to be equal. I think we all deserve that much."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419