Anoka-Hennepin school district teacher Diane Cleveland (Photo courtesy of FOX 9 TV )

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Anoka-Hennepin school district teacher Walter Filson (Photo courtesy of FOX 9 TV)

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Anoka-Hennepin teacher disputes harassment report

  • Article by: EMILY JOHNS
  • Star Tribune
  • September 3, 2009 - 11:43 PM

An Anoka-Hennepin teacher who was disciplined for harassing a student she thought was gay "steadfastly" denied Thursday that she ever harassed or intended to harass a student, according to her attorney.

"She does not in any way acknowledge harassing anybody," said Phil Villaume, the attorney for teacher Diane Cleveland.

Villaume was responding to documents obtained from the school district by the Star Tribune that include more information about the district's investigation of Cleveland, the discipline that followed and an account of the teacher's defense of her actions to a district official.

The district did not provide documents for a second teacher, Walter Filson, accused of similar actions, because it is not clear whether his discipline has been completed, which determines whether the documents are public.

In the documents, the district redacted the name of the student who complained, whom the Star Tribune has identified as Alex Merritt.

The teachers taught Merritt during the 2007-08 school year at the district's "Secondary Technical Education Program," or STEP. According to a separate investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, they repeatedly harassed and teased Merritt, who is not gay. When he proposed doing a report on Benjamin Franklin, Cleveland, 39, said Merritt had "a thing for older men." Filson, 56, said Merritt liked to wear women's clothing.

The district's investigation said that other students independently verified Merritt's account.

January '08 investigation

The January 2008 investigation was conducted by DeAnn LaValle, director of employee services for the district at the time. According to the documents, Cleveland told LaValle that "students often make remarks such as 'you're so gay' or 'that's so gay' without actually thinking or accusing the other person of being homosexual," and if such comments are made in a joking manner between students who appear to be getting along, "she ignores them."

Cleveland also denied or said she couldn't remember saying the things that Merritt accused her of, the investigation said, and "she opined that [Alex] "got the reaction he wanted from the class, implying that [he] was enjoying the teasing and laughing."

Through her attorney, Cleveland said Thursday that she does not agree with LaValle's summary of the interview with her.

Merritt's attorney, Kathleen O'Conner, said Thursday that Merritt definitely did not enjoy the teasing.

"He'd come home after school and go to his room and cry, and his mom couldn't understand what happened to him because he was such a happy kid before," she said. "It affected him so deeply."

Merritt eventually transferred out of the school district and recently graduated from Zimmerman High School. On Monday, he started boot camp for the U.S. Army Reserves.

Cleveland was originally given a five-day unpaid suspension by the district, but she filed a grievance and it was shortened to two days, served in February 2008. She was reassigned to a different job for a week and separately underwent diversity training. For the week she was reassigned, she called in sick for all but the first day of her new assignment.

The district also put a strongly worded "letter of deficiency" in her personnel file.

"The object of your teasing, jokes and comments felt victimized, humiliated and discriminated against," read the letter, from Ginny Karbowski, who directs the program where Cleveland teaches. "... Your actions have had a detrimental impact upon the students, the STEP program, and the entire school district."

The investigation found that Cleveland violated three school board policies, as well as the code of ethics for Minnesota teachers, which is written into state statute.

Karbowski said Tuesday that the two teachers are on leave from their jobs. Cleveland's attorney said it is an unpaid, indefinite, voluntary leave of absence at her request. He also said she is under investigation by the Minnesota Board of Teaching, which has the power to revoke her teaching license.

The district paid Merritt a $25,000 settlement in June.

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460

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