Jennifer Cherry, the new Title IX/equity coordinator for Anoka-Hennepin schools, is settling into a job with no precedent in the district.
The dedicated position was one of two created as part of the settlement the district reached in March with the U.S. Department of Justice and six students who had filed an anti-bullying lawsuit against the district.
Cherry will have broad responsibilities, from ensuring that the district complies with state and federal civil rights laws to overseeing anti-bullying training, to working with families and students who have experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination. She also will file required regular compliance reports to the Department of Justice.
During the past couple of years, the state's largest school district has drawn national scrutiny over policies and practices involving bullying and harassment. Last summer, the six students sued, claiming Anoka-Hennepin failed to adequately address complaints of bullying based on sexual orientation. In February, the school board concluded two months of bitter debate when it scrapped a contentious policy barring teachers from taking a stand on issues of sexual orientation.
Of that period, Cherry said, "I think there's been a lot of heartache."
She said she looks forward to the opportunity to help make conditions better for kids.
"Here I feel the ability to have an impact on policies and procedures and preventive measures that will have a great, great impact on students," she said.
She credited the district for work that's been done already, in particular, a collaboration with CLIMB Theatre to write training plays to address real bullying scenarios. Secondary teachers had their training in January; a production for elementary teachers is on the schedule this summer.
Cherry comes to the position after a career that already includes work as a technology teacher at the high school and college levels; a tech recruiter; a University of Minnesota teacher trainer, and researcher.
One common thread -- and the subject of her doctoral thesis -- was a recognition of equity issues in technology, in the way gender, socioeconomics, race and other issues affect the way groups use, access and approach careers in technology.
"It's been a journey," she said. "The gender issue was the first, most prominent issue in my mind; that stemmed from my tenure as a teacher. Then moving on from that to teacher preparation, it was bigger than gender. It was all protected classes.
"Equity is something that is in the limelight right now, when we talk about bullying and why are some kids bullied and why are some kids doing the bullying," she said. "We have a real opportunity here to highlight the issues that are taking place in Anoka-Hennepin as they're related to equity and bullying. We have a real opportunity here to create best practices around these issues."
Wider scope of Title IX
Title IX is most frequently associated with gender equity in sports. But the text of the act is larger, guaranteeing gender-blind access to "any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
Recognition of that broader scope is spreading, said Associate Superintendent for Middle Schools Jinger Gustafson.
"Right now across the country, Title IX is more than about athletics," she said. "It's expanding to civil rights in general."
Cherry will oversee the community-wide expansion of the district's anti-bullying task force. That's a daunting task in a divided community, she said, but important.
"I think it's important to bring people together to hear each other's ideas and opinions," she said.
Though the requirement to hire a Title IX coordinator -- and a district mental health coordinator -- was embedded in the settlement, both are positions Anoka-Hennepin has wanted to create to help oversee the sprawling 39,000-student district. Gustafson, who also has overseen anti-bullying efforts in the district, said she expects the Title IX position to extend beyond the consent decree's five-year life.
Cherry lives with her family in Centerville.
"Anoka County is my home," she said. "I'm pretty dedicated to this work and what happens in this county. It's my community, too."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409