Two national civil rights groups and a Minneapolis law firm filed suit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District on Thursday, claiming that staff members in Minnesota's largest district didn't do enough for students bullied because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation.

The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of five current and former students, who say they've been peppered with demeaning slurs, stabbed with pencils, even urinated on by classmates. It seeks to end the district's sexual orientation curriculum policy, which allows teachers to discuss sexual orientation issues but requires them to maintain neutrality.

The north metro district defended the policy and also said it wants to work with the civil rights groups.

Outside a Champlin school, leaders from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), National Center for Lesbian Rights and the law firm Faegre & Benson held a news conference to announce the legal action.

"The Anoka-Hennepin School District, where we stand today, has refused to take a stand against harassment and bullying," said Mary Bauer of the Alabama-based SPLC. "This policy sends a message to kids that who they are is not OK. Our plaintiffs have stood up and said 'no more.'"

In addition to seeking to end the policy, commonly called the "neutrality policy," the suit also asks for compensation for the students who say they were repeatedly bullied because they are or were perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT).

Thursday's announcement came a day after the district acknowledged that federal authorities have been investigating it since November after receiving a complaint of student bullying. The district also said Wednesday it wanted to work with the two groups instead of engaging in costly litigation.

"We feel that it would be better to put our energy and resources into materials for training students and all staff," spokeswoman Mary Olson said Thursday.

District leaders maintain that the policy is appropriate and that the community is split on GLBT issues. The district has bullying prevention programs and an anti-bullying policy -- the first district in the state to establish one, Olson said. Leaders are in the process of drafting a plan to better address bullying, she said, but "the board is not willing to change the policy."

SPLC attorney Sam Wolfe said the groups have worked in the district the last 10 months and met with district leaders once since their May request to repeal the policy. Refusal to get rid of the policy is a "nonstarter" for further discussions, Wolfe said.

"There is a great sense of urgency that this problem needs to be addressed," he said.

National cases

Since a landmark 1996 Wisconsin case, students have sued school districts over bullying based on sexual orientation in at least 17 cases nationwide, said Eliza Byard of the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). In all cases, she said, the student won or a settlement was in their favor.

"What's different in this case is it's not only about the failure to act in the face of widespread bullying ... the policy is adding to the problem," she said.

In 2009, Anoka-Hennepin paid $25,000 to the family of a student who said he was harassed by teachers who mistakenly thought he was gay.

Kyle Rooker, one of the student plaintiffs in the suit filed Thursday, was at the news conference in Champlin. Rooker, 14, likes to sing songs by Lady Gaga and wear sparkly red high-heeled shoes or brightly colored scarves -- all of which elicited name-calling and threats. A group of boys urinated on him, according to the suit. The eighth-grader, who doesn't consider himself gay, said Thursday that teachers didn't stop repeated bullying. He left the district in April.

"They would tell me I shouldn't act a certain way or dress a certain way instead of stopping the kids from harassing me," he said. "Instead of telling me I'm wrong for being different, I think we should tell bullies they're wrong for being mean."

Last month, GLSEN released survey results that said 84 percent of GLBT Minnesota students have reported verbal harassment in school because of their sexual orientation while 47 percent reported physical harassment. Nineteen percent reported assaults.

Of the five plaintiffs in Thursday's suit, three identify as GLBT. Two do not, but were perceived by classmates to be gay.

Federal investigation

Bullying has been a high-profile issue in Anoka-Hennepin over the past year.

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

Since the U.S. Justice and Education departments began investigating the district in November, authorities have interviewed employees, students and staff, and have requested district documents. The district met with authorities June 2; no findings have been released.

Board chairman Tom Heidemann did not return messages Thursday asking for comment.

In the 1990s, the district school board adopted a "board directive" that stated homosexuality was not to be taught in sex education because it was not a valid lifestyle.

In 2009, board member Scott Wenzel recommended it be replaced with the neutrality policy -- a compromise, he said, between other board members and Wenzel, who said he's the policy's lone opponent.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141