Student faced gay slurs by teachers, state says

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY and JANE FRIEDMANN
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • August 13, 2009 - 5:50 AM

The Anoka-Hennepin School District has agreed to pay a $25,000 settlement to the family of a high school junior after two teachers harassed the boy and subjected him to classroom jokes, comments and innuendos concerning his perceived sexual orientation

The boy's "fence swings both ways," teacher Diane Cleveland commented during a class in the 2007-2008 school year, according to an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

When the boy wrote a report on Ben Franklin, Cleveland allegedly said before the entire class that the boy had a "thing for older men." Another teacher, Walter Filson, said in front of other students that the boy "enjoys wearing women's clothes." When the boy decided to report on Abraham Lincoln, Filson allegedly said, "Since you like your men older ..." the Human Rights report said.

The school district, which has denied it violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act, agreed last month to pay the boy's family $25,000.

Filson said Wednesday, "I have no comment at this time." Calls to Cleveland's home were not immediately returned.

Cleveland and Filson have received "outstanding performance" awards from the district in recent years.

Charges of sexual orientation discrimination within school districts, such as this one brought against Minnesota's largest school district by the boy's mother, are extremely rare. Of the 850 to 1,300 charges filed each year between 2003 and 2008 with the Department of Human Rights, only four were based on sexual orientation in the area of education, said Jeff Holman, a spokesperson for the department.

"This should not have happened to this student or to any student," said Ginny Karbowski, director of the school district's Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP), where the boy was enrolled until he transferred to a school 25 miles away to escape harassment. "I was shocked and saddened when I heard these allegations," she said.

The district reacted in January 2008 to the allegations by briefly reassigning Cleveland, 39, a social studies teacher, and placing her 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 Department of Human Rights. However, the department said, Cleveland completed only one day of the assignment, calling in sick the remainder of the week. When a new semester started on Jan. 22, 2008, she was back in her classroom, according to the department's report.

It is not known what, if any, disciplinary was taken regarding Filson, 56, a law enforcement teacher.

Report cites other examples

"Would you like to have [another allegedly gay student] go with you so he can sit in the stall next to you and stomp his foot?" Cleveland asked the boy when he asked to go to the restroom, according to the report. She also allegedly said that the boy's "boat floats in a different direction than the rest of the guys in the class."

When a student in Filson's class talked about a deer that had been molested, the student said, according to the Human Rights report, "Hey, Mr. Filson, doesn't that sound like something [the student perceived to be gay] would do?" Filson allegedly agreed and laughed.

Cleveland and Filson remain teachers in the district, Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson said. Carlson, who was not superintendent during the time of the allegations, called it "an isolated incident" and said the teachers should be judged by their entire work history.

"I'm extremely disappointed from any aspect you can think of," Carlson said. "These are places of learning, not places where we tolerate harassment, certainly not from our paid staff."

He said he is comfortable with disciplinary action taken. A district sexual orientation curriculum for staff and students began in February, Karbowski said. Anti-bullying policies have long been a focus in the district, said district spokesperson Mary Olson.

"When students come to our office and report any allegations, or even gossip, we deal with it immediately," Karbowski said.

Calls to the boy's family were not immediately returned. The Star Tribune is not naming the family to protect the boy's identity. • 612-673-4419 • 612-673-7852

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