The 2008 harassment incident has left an Anoka-Hennepin school board member calling for more training of the staff.
Anoka-Hennepin School District has agreed to pay a $25,000 settlement to the family of Alex Merritt (pictured) after two teachers made jokes that lead to constant teasing from peers and eventually caused him to switch schools.
Alex Merritt says a $25,000 settlement is small consolation for the pain caused by two teachers who harassed him repeatedly with remarks about his perceived sexual orientation during classes in the Anoka-Hennepin School District during the 2007-2008 school year.
"A settlement doesn't fix a broken heart," said Merritt, who is now 18. "It doesn't bring back all my friends."
Merritt said the teachers' comments, which he said weren't true, spurred death threats and led him to transfer 25 miles away to Zimmerman High School, where he graduated in the spring.
Despite his complaints, and a resulting investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, the district recently rejected a local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) advocacy group's offer to help train staff in the district's recently revised policy on discussing sexual orientation. Until February district policy directed staff members to refrain from discussing homosexuality "as a normal, valid lifestyle" in health education classes.
"There are so many advocacy groups out there that you could have one for every social concern there is," said Michelle Langenfeld, associate superintendent of the district, which is the state's largest with more than 40,000 students. "What we've tried to do is create policy around a neutral stance, focusing on respect, appreciation of diversity, responsibility, integrity and compassion."
OutFront Minnesota, the group that offered to help, doesn't see it that way.
"When they say, 'We don't need to train our staff on how to deal with GLBT students,'" said Phil Duran, the group's legal director, "I'm thinking they've got a problem."
Langenfeld said Thursday that all Anoka-Hennepin staff members go through harassment training when they are hired, and that principals revisit the anti-harassment policy every year with their employees and students.
The system has generally worked, she said, and complaints like Merritt's are extremely rare. When an incident like this comes along, "it's obviously very troubling," she said, "because clearly the policy was not on these folks' radar."
School Board Member Scott Wenzel pushed to revise the policy on discussing homosexuality following a suggestion by a Twin Cities GLBT group. He said that he and other board members were "horrified" when they learned about Merritt's harassment. "I teach in St. Paul and I value diversity greatly, and I found it was horrible. It's just disgusting that we would treat any human being ... that way."
With the case out in the open, Wenzel said he's heard from parents upset that such harassment occurred.
Board members have asked the superintendent to investigate whether the district's procedures went far enough to determine what was going on and whether the district has been proactive enough in helping the staff relate to all members of the community, Wenzel said.
"I think it's important to let the community know that we are dealing with this as a board ... and that we do expect a higher standard from our staff," Wenzel said. "I think we also need more training for our staff so that our staff understands everyone who is coming to our community because our community is changing greatly compared to what it was 10, 15 years ago."
'You've got to tell somebody'
Merritt's mother, Jodi, filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in May 2008 on his behalf. He was a student at the district's Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP).
His "fence swings both ways," teacher Diane Cleveland said during a class, according to the investigation by the Human Rights department. Another teacher, Walter Filson, said that Merritt "enjoys wearing women's clothes."
Merritt said he had Cleveland's class before lunch, and Filson's class afterwards. If Cleveland made fun of him for something, he said, she told Filson about it at lunch. Merritt would be teased for the same thing in a new class after lunch.
"I told Ms. Cleveland that I wanted to do a report on Ben Franklin, and she said, 'Why? Do you have a thing for older men?' " he said. "Then I sat in Mr. Filson's class, and he called me 'Mr. Ben Franklin,' and said, 'What do you have for these older men that Ms. Cleveland told me about?' "
"I'd come home from school and clam up," he said. "I got death threats from random kids, saying things like 'Shut up, you queer, and, I'm going to kill you, you queer.'"
According to the investigation, Cleveland also covered the screen during a bathing suit scene in a movie the class was watching, and said "It's OK if [Alex] watches this because he isn't into that sort of thing anyway ... maybe if it was a guy."
The Anoka-Hennepin district disciplined Cleveland, 39, a social studies teacher, after Merritt complained.
She was briefly reassigned, and placed on two-day unpaid suspension. Her reassignment included working on a "social studies curriculum development and reflecting on equality and diversity in the classroom," according to the investigation. But she completed only one day of the assignment and called in sick for the rest of the week.
It is not known what, if any, disciplinary action was taken regarding Filson, 56, a law enforcement teacher.
Cleveland has not returned phone calls seeking comment, and Filson has declined to comment.
The strange part about his experiences, Alex pointed out, is that he is straight.
He said he is speaking publicly now because "I'm not the first kid this has happened to. I feel bad for the kid who was homosexual in that class, seeing that I was belittled. ... If kids feel like this is what they're going through, at work, at school, at the house, you've got to tell somebody."
A national group, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network reports that 87 percent of GLBT students in Minnesota report verbal harassment in school because of their sexual orientation, and nearly two-thirds of GLBT students nationwide have heard homophobic comments from teachers or other school staff.
"When people make knuckleheaded remarks like these people in Anoka, clearly, they have had no training on what you can and can't say,'' said Alan Horowitz, coordinator of the Out for Equity program that trains St. Paul teachers on how to discuss sexual orientation. "If you never talk about it, then everybody just does what they think the best thing to do is in their head."
In June, Merritt said he had a chance to sit down with Cleveland and Filson, as well as his lawyers and district staff.
He told them about why they had hurt him.
"They said no more than five words," Merritt said. "They said 'We're sorry you had to come here today. We're very proud that you could stand up like this.' "
"Sorry doesn't cut it," Merritt said. "The teachers should be kicked out."
Staff Writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report.
Emily Johns • 612-673-7460