The Anoka-Hennepin School District is closing a dark chapter in its history.

The Department of Justice placed the district under a consent decree in 2012 after several suicides and a lawsuit brought by six students who said the district was not protecting them from sex harassment. The district had to hire consultants, document harassment and submit annual reports to federal officials.

Five years later, students say the school climate has improved, but more steps need to be taken to make sure all students feel welcome. While the decree and its requirements for compliance ended in March, district officials say the work will continue.

"There has definitely been progress," Kyrstin Schuette, one of the students involved in the original lawsuit, said. "I don't know if it is the amount of progress we would like it to be."

A battle over sexual identity issues is still raging in the community, set off when a mother asked the district to create a policy for her transgender child. Rather than adopt a formal policy, school board members said they would decide gender inclusion issues on a case-by-case basis.

People on both sides of the debate have packed recent school board meetings discussing bathroom use by transgender students. Some of the same people who spoke out when the decree was first announced in 2012 are back at the school board voicing their concerns again.

Schuette attended the April 24 meeting and said she could not sit quietly. She was listed as "Jane Doe" in the original lawsuit in 2011, as an 18-year-old senior at Anoka High School. The suit argued that the district did not respond to peer-on-peer harassment on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation.

Schuette said she was bullied for her sexual orientation to the point where she dropped out of high school and attempted suicide.

"I knew people who had committed suicide," she said in an interview. "I left the hospital and took that as, there is a reason that I am here … and I needed to stand up and do what was right."

Schuette, who lives with her wife in Minneapolis, encouraged the board at the April meeting to adopt a gender inclusion policy.

"They need to be able to continue to listen … to the students and combat some of the hate that continues to breed there," she said.

Suicide cluster

Between 2010 and 2012, a cluster of student suicides pushed the district into the national spotlight. District officials say that suicides were not connected to sex-based bullying.

The district had procedures to protect students from bullying before the decree. The decree beefed up those measures, said Paul Cady, the district's general counsel.

The district created task forces, brought in consultants like True Colors, a Connecticut nonprofit, for staff trainings, and hired a mental health coordinator and a Title IX expert to handle sex-based harassment complaints. The district has spent $500,000 each year of the decree to follow federal guidelines.

Even with the decree's expiration, district officials won't pat themselves on the back. The district shows fluctuating harassment numbers, reporting 453 incidents in the 2013-14 school year, 399 incidents in 2014-15 and 646 incidents in 2015-16.

"Creating and maintaining safe and welcoming schools is a district strategic priority set by the Anoka-Hennepin school board and a goal that requires ongoing and sustained effort to achieve," Superintendent David Law said in a statement.

Tammy Aaberg's son, Justin, was one of the students who committed suicide in 2010. Since her son's death at age 15, Aaberg has advocated for LGBT youth like her son. With the end of the decree, she is worried that improvements will be undone.

"With the outside … groups seeming to have had so much power in policies in the past in this district, and the harm they caused, it does worry me," Aaberg said in a statement. "These groups are at it again."

The Minnesota Family Council rallied its members to attend the school board's meeting on gender inclusion in March, where several spoke out on what they called "gender-radical indoctrination" in schools.

Barb Anderson, a long-standing opponent to changes to the district's sexual orientation policies, expressed her concern on gender inclusion again this spring.

In 2012, Anderson had pushed the board to keep a policy that instructed district staff to remain neutral on matters of sexual orientation. The Southern Poverty Law Center called it a gag policy that kept staff from stepping in when students were bullied for their sexual orientation and said it contributed to the harmful environment for LGBT youth.

"The vast majority of our teachers still abide by that [policy]," Anderson said in an e-mail. "There are some teachers, however, who are driven by ideology and are promoting the delusion of multiple genders and the nonsense of using fabricated pronouns — even in honors English."

Current district policy instructs staff not to take sides on contentious issues but to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all their students.

Second family

Champlin Park High School students in the Gay Straight Alliance ended their last meeting of the school year with a potluck, sharing brownies and cookies while reflecting on their year together. Students say the group gives them a safe space to share concerns about gender-based classroom activities, like splitting up girls and boys in gym, or staff members using the wrong pronouns or hearing slurs in the hallways.

Champlin Park boasts the district's longest-running GSA club, dating to the early '90s.

For Jennifer Soriano, a 14-year-old freshman, the club was a mind-set changer.

"GSA is the very place, when you feel alone, that's where you go," she said. Soriano, who identifies as transgender and has spoken up at school board meetings, said the district has come a long way but still has a ways to go. She said she has been stopped by staff members for trying to use the bathroom and has been mocked for wearing a wig.

She credits teacher/adviser Jessica Wilson with making the school a safe and welcoming space. Wilson and Soriano both testified at the April 24 meeting on gender inclusion.

"If you are not a part of the LGBTQ+ community, there is no way you put yourself in our shoes or understand what it is like to be in high school and be gay," Wilson said.

Beatrice Dupuy • 612-673-1707