Anoka-Hennepin School District faces bullying probe

  • Star Tribune
  • July 20, 2011 - 9:42 PM

Federal officials are investigating allegations of student bullying based on sexual orientation in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

The north metro school district, the state's largest, acknowledged Wednesday that the U.S. departments of Justice and Education launched their investigation in November. In a statement, the district said it is having "collaborative discussions" with federal authorities to provide additional staff and student training on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) issues.

"We want to make positive improvements," district spokesman Brett Johnson said. "Their goals and our goals are aligned: We want to keep kids safe."

It has been a year of public scrutiny for the district over its handling of GLBT issues, much of it focused on the district's sexual orientation curriculum policy, commonly called the neutrality policy. The policy allows teachers to discuss issues related to sexual orientation in the classroom but requires them to maintain neutrality -- the only local school district known to have such a policy.

The district also has an anti-bullying policy.

The federal investigation came after the Education Department sent a directive to the nation's school districts and colleges last October that discussed anti-bullying guidelines. The letter said that corrective actions would be required of those that didn't follow the guidelines. The department also held workshops around the country aimed at curtailing bullying.

On Wednesday morning, after CNN published an online report on the Anoka-Hennepin investigation, Johnson said the district could not disclose details about the inquiry but released a memo dated April 25 that it had sent to CNN. In the memo, district lawyer Paul Cady said the complaint that preceded the investigation concerned "allegations of harassment and discrimination in the Anoka-Hennepin School District based on sex, including peer-on-peer harassment based on not conforming to gender stereotypes."

The memo said the federal authorities also heard about the district's issues through various media reports "that students in the District who had recently committed suicide may have been the victims of incidents of harassment and bullying."

Johnson said that, since November, federal authorities have interviewed many district employees and requested documents detailing policies, student discipline records and private student data. The school board and other district leaders knew about the inquiry but didn't disclose the information publicly, Johnson said, because "it's not a public process" and involves confidential data.

District leaders first met with investigators June 2, he said, but no findings have been reached yet.

"Our investigation is ongoing," said Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa. She declined to say what complaint or complaints sparked the inquiry.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which have threatened legal action seeking to end the district's neutrality policy, will hold a news conference Thursday morning in Champlin.

"The policy must end," Law Center attorney Sam Wolfe said in a statement, "and it's well past time that the district take its obligation seriously to protect all students - including LGBT students - from harassment."

The district defended the neutrality policy Wednesday and said "the community is split and opinions vary widely" on GLBT issues. Superintendent Dennis Carlson said in a statement, "Rather than focusing on litigation we would prefer to invest in materials that would provide a positive outcome for students for years to come." He invited the Law Center and NCLR to help in providing additional training toward that end.

Investigation in California

In an investigation completed this month, the Justice Department found that a California district failed to investigate or respond to bullying of a middle school student who committed suicide after enduring more than two years of harassment by classmates.

Investigators concluded that the Tehachapi school district violated Title IV of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX and ordered it to revise its policies relating to sexual and gender-based harassment. The agencies also mandated that school officials conduct surveys, address issues identified in those surveys and form an advisory panel to discuss issues related to sex and gender-based harassment.

Events in Anoka-Hennepin

Last fall, after a number of student suicides in the 38,000-student Anoka-Hennepin district, GLBT advocates argued that some deaths stemmed from bullying because of real or perceived GLBT orientation. In December, the district said an investigation into six teen suicides had found no links to bullying.

This month, the school board was presented with petitions opposing the district's two-year-old neutrality policy.

"How can you remain neutral about issues of oppression?" Jefferson Fietek, an Anoka teacher, asked Wednesday.

Fietek, who is openly gay, was contacted by federal investigators this spring to talk about harassment he's seen or experienced. "At first, I thought I was the only one that saw a problem," he said. "But when suddenly you have a federal investigator calling you, apparently someone else saw a problem too. It was a sense of relief that someone else is asking questions."

When students found out he was gay and asked him about it, he said he hesitated to discuss it because he didn't want to violate the district's policy.

Tammy Aaberg was also interviewed this spring. Two women from the Justice Department met the Fridley mother at a coffee shop to talk to her about her son Justin, a 15-year-old who committed suicide last July after she said he endured shoving in the lunch line and frequent name-calling from his peers for being openly gay.

She said that although school staff saw Justin, then in eighth grade, crying after the incident, she was not notified and found out about much of two years of bullying after his death.

"If I didn't know about it -- and Justin and I were close -- how many other parents are out there?" she said.

Both she and Fietek say they're optimistic the federal investigation will prompt changes in the district. "I'm very hopeful that they are able to ... make this better," she said. • 612-673-4141 • 612-673-4491

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