Editorial: Settlement signals new era for schools

  • Updated: March 11, 2012 - 7:32 PM

Anoka-Hennepin decision good for teens across the country.

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Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Associated Press - Ap

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It was heart-wrenching to hear what the six teens endured while attending Anoka-Hennepin schools. One boy said a classmate urinated on him. Another teen was choked and stabbed with a pencil. And a girl said students taunted her about the suicide death of her friend and told her she should kill herself, too.

The six students were physically and emotionally abused simply because intolerant classmates were targeting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender students and those perceived to be GLBT or to have gay parents. They suffered, in part, because school staff and administrators didn't do enough to stop the abuse.

Although no one can erase the terrible memories those six students will carry the rest of their lives, the courage they and their families showed in publicly recounting the abuse has laid a foundation to better protect other students from mistreatment and build more tolerant, inclusive school cultures.

Earlier this week, the Anoka-Hennepin school board accepted, and a federal judge signed, a precedent-setting settlement to complaints filed by six students.

With the help of Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Culberth & Lienemann and Faegre Baker Daniels law firms, the students filed a lawsuit against the district for failing to protect them.

Based on their complaints, U.S. Departments of Justice and Education investigated and found that the district should have done more to intervene and prevent bullying.

This week's resulting consent decree is rightly more than a slap on the wrist for district leaders who had been resistant to change. The settlement requires the district to fully investigate reports of harassment and take proactive measures to address what federal investigators called a "hostile environment.''

School staff must create a data system to track problems, offer training for staff and students, and seek out and rectify "hot spots'' for bullying and harassment.

School administrators also must make regular progress reports to the Justice Department, add several positions to oversee the efforts and submit to federal monitoring.

The consent decree sends a strong, necessary message to both the perpetrators of harassment and to school districts. Parents of bullies should consider this: If you cannot or will not do anything about your child's behavior, your tax dollars may be diverted from educational needs to covering legal costs.

The Anoka-Hennepin settlement awards $270,000 to be divided among the six plaintiffs. Attorneys and the families wouldn't reveal if the money was split evenly, but one mom said the money would be dedicated to the teens' futures -- likely in a college fund.

As the students and supporters of the agreement said, this case was never about money: It was about changing the culture in Anoka-Hennepin and at other schools.

During a news conference this week, the student plaintiffs agreed that conditions have already improved at their schools because of the attention their case generated. One said he had not been bullied in "a month and a half.''

The six brave teenage plaintiffs came forward because they want to go to school in peace. Thanks to their efforts, there's finally hope in the hallways.

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  • LANDMARK DECISION

    "Through their bravery in stepping forward, our clients have helped to bring about a settlement which not only promises to improve the lives of students in Anoka-Hennepin, but also sets an example nationwide. These kids and their families are heroes. ... They truly can take credit for helping to make the world a better place.''

    MIKE PONTO, lead attorney for Faegre Baker Daniels

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