Facing intense criticism for not firing two teachers who mocked a student they thought was gay, Anoka-Hennepin school district officials expressed regret Tuesday over how the student was treated and said they issued the strongest discipline they thought they could under the law.

"We deeply regret what this student and his classmates experienced," the district said in a letter to the community. "It should not have happened. We will do everything in our power to prevent it from happening again."

Anoka-Hennepin recently paid a $25,000 settlement to former student Alex Merritt and his family after the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found probable cause that the teachers harassed Merritt, who is straight, because they thought he was gay. The district denies it violated the state's Human Rights Act.

State law allows teachers to be fired immediately for "conduct unbecoming a teacher," which includes discrimination because of sexual orientation. But district spokeswoman Mary Olson said Tuesday that the district's attorney stressed that previous arbitration decisions show that when a teacher harasses someone, the district usually has to pursue "corrective action" before the teacher can be fired.

The district's letter states that the district and board members "have heard from many people who want to know why we did not immediately dismiss the teachers involved in this incident."

The teachers, Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson, taught Merritt in the 2007-08 school year at Anoka-Hennepin's Secondary Technical Education Program.

Olson confirmed that the teachers had received "letters of deficiency" about their job performances, and that one teacher, identified by the Human Rights Department's investigation as Cleveland, was ordered to take two days of unpaid leave.

Olson said she couldn't comment further because of a "confidentiality agreement signed by all parties," but she said last week that the teachers "went through remediation."

The district briefly reassigned Cleveland in January 2008 to duties that included working on "social studies curriculum development and reflecting on equality and diversity in the classroom," according to the Human Rights department's report. However, it said, she completed only one day of the assignment and called in sick the remainder of the week. When a new semester started on Jan. 22, she was back in her classroom.

The investigation found that the teachers repeatedly harassed and teased Merritt. When he proposed doing a report on Benjamin Franklin, Cleveland, 39, said Merritt had "a thing for older men," the Human Rights report said. Filson, 56, said Merritt liked to wear women's clothing, the report added.

Merritt eventually transferred schools and graduated from Zimmerman High School this year.

Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union, said Tuesday that it does not comment on cases involving specific members but represents members in cases such as Anoka-Hennepin's to make sure district policies and contracts are followed.

'Make any necessary changes'

In a statement, the union said that it "does not condone harassment or discrimination in or out of the classroom" and "has always advocated for human rights for all students and teachers."

The district's letter said the school board has "asked the administration to review this situation in detail and make any necessary changes in our policies, procedures, or management decision-making processes. We will also review the training we provide staff and students, to ensure that it is adequate and appropriate."

In June, the district rejected a local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) advocacy group's offer to help train staff in the district's recently revised policy on discussing sexual orientation in health education classes.

Anoka-Hennepin is the state's largest school district with more than 40,000 students.

Until February, district policy directed staff members to refrain from discussing homosexuality "as a normal, valid lifestyle" in such classes.

That led OutFront Minnesota, the group turned down by the district, to be skeptical.

"Having talked the talk, it will be critical to see if the district walks the walk," said Phil Duran, legal director of the group, which also has encouraged the district to train student-services staff to help GLBT students who have concerns. "The district will need to take concrete steps along these lines to undo the damage this episode has inflicted."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460