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Signs point to resolution of bullying lawsuit against Anoka-Hennepin district

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA
  • Star Tribune
  • March 1, 2012 - 8:00 PM

As mediation talks resumed Thursday in a lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District, signs were emerging that a settlement may be imminent.

The suit was filed last summer by six current and former students who claimed the district had inadequately responded to their complaints of persistent and severe bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation.

The parties in the lawsuit are under orders not to comment, but the following developments pointed toward a possible resolution:

• Item No. 4 on the agenda for a school board work session Monday: "Consent Decree." A placeholder was created on the agenda in anticipation of a possible settlement, said district spokeswoman Mary Olson, adding that state law requires publication of an agenda three days before a public meeting.

• The board's recent move to replace the district's Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy. That was a key demand of the lawsuit, which called the policy a "gag policy" that contributed to an environment that tolerated bullying and harassment of students based on sexual orientation. The district has said that repealing the so-called neutrality policy was not done because of the lawsuit, but because teachers and others found it confusing.

• Changes in policy and climate. In addition to compensatory and punitive damages, the lawsuit sought to change the climate of the district for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

In the past year, the district has bolstered training for teachers on preventing and responding to bullying and harassment, including bullying based on sexual orientation. In addition, it has added staff to its counseling programs and strengthened policies against bullying and harassment.

Monday's agenda item follows a closed session with the school district's attorney, Paul Cady.

School board member Mike Sullivan said Thursday that the board has followed along closely as the parties in the lawsuit have worked to resolve differences. Although he would not share details of a settlement-in-progress, he said that it is a relief to be making strides and that he supports the work the two groups have done.

"I am pleased as an individual board member that we've finally come to a place to be able to resolve this," he said.

Board member Scott Wenzel, who also declined to comment on specifics, also said the board has been closely connected as mediation talks have progressed. He said he looks to the day, soon, when the board can give all of its focus to educational issues.

The six students who sued the district have been represented by attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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