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Anoka-Hennepin School District settles bullying lawsuits

COON RAPIDS, Minn. — An agreement has been reached on behalf of six students who filed two federal gender and sexual-orientation harassment lawsuits against Anoka-Hennepin School District.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), and the law firms of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP and Culberth & Lienemann LLP announced the settlement today.

The student plaintiffs, the federal government and the district have entered into a consent decree — an agreement that must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Joan N. Ericksen — to resolve the complaints brought against the district under Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, as well as the claims brought by the students under the United States Constitution and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The agreement also resolves an investigation of harassment in district schools by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), along with a related complaint filed against the district today by the DOJ.

The consent decree includes significant new protections designed to prevent harassment of students who are or perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), and gender non-conforming, as well as those who have friends or parents who are LGBT.

The decree also includes a comprehensive, systemic plan to counter and prevent future harassment in district education programs and activities. Key features of the plan include a thorough evaluation of the district’s anti-harassment policies and procedures, and tailored actions to improve the school climate and enhance the training of staff and students.

The agreement specifically provides that teachers may affirm the dignity and self-worth of students and any protected characteristics of students, such as being LGBT, without running afoul of any district policy. Under the agreement, the six students will also receive a total of $270,000.

“This historic agreement marks a fresh start for the Anoka-Hennepin School District,” said Sam Wolfe, an attorney for the SPLC’s LGBT Project. “Unfortunately, this district had become notorious for anti-LGBT hostility and discrimination. This consent decree sets the stage for Anoka-Hennepin to become a model for other school districts to follow in creating more respectful learning environments for all students in a thoughtful, systemic, and proactive way.”

Dylon Frei, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said: “No one should have to go through the kind of harassment that I did. I am happy this agreement includes real changes that will make our schools safer and more welcoming for other kids.”

Said NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter: “This is an important step toward making LGBT and gender non-conforming students feel safe and welcome in district schools. The district has committed to a detailed long-term plan to prevent and address harassment, as well as ongoing review of its implementation of the plan by federal agencies. Along with the district’s repeal last month of its harmful and stigmatizing Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, which prevented teachers from effectively responding to harassment, this agreement points the way toward a better future for LGBT students in the district.”

“We are so proud of these brave kids who stepped forward and made their voices heard,” said Celeste Culberth of Culberth & Lienemann. “They have helped set a course today that will benefit children in this district for years to come and they have much to celebrate.”

Mike Ponto, lead attorney on the case for Faegre Baker Daniels added: “Through their bravery in stepping forward, our clients have helped to bring about a settlement which not only promises to improve the lives of students in Anoka-Hennepin, but also sets an example nationwide. These kids and their families are heroes. They have turned adversity into opportunity and in doing so they truly can take credit for helping to make the world a better place.”

The primary purpose of the consent decree is to address and prevent sex-based and sexual-orientation-based harassment. Under the terms of the consent decree, the district is required to:

• Retain the Great Lakes Equity Center, an equity assistance center based at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis to provide a comprehensive, systemic review and recommend revisions to district policies and practices related to sex and sexual-orientation related harassment.

• Fully investigate reports of harassment; escalate remedial efforts through additional measures when students are harassed on a repeated basis; and mitigate the effects of harassment that occurs.

• Take proactive measures to address the hostile environment.

• Develop procedures for parental notification while maintaining sensitivity to a student’s right of privacy relating to their real or perceived orientation or gender identity.

• Hire a district-level, harassment-prevention official who will help lead the district’s efforts to “eliminate and prevent future instances of harassment in its education programs and activities.” This official will be referred to as a Title IX/Equity Coordinator who will ensure the district complies with its legal obligations to protect students from harassment; implement district policies and procedures relating to sex and sexual-orientation based harassment; monitor all complaints of such discrimination and harassment; identify trends or common areas of concern related to compliance; and coordinate between and among school and district staff, students, and parents related to addressing and preventing harassment.

• Work with the Equity Center, Title IX /Equity Coordinator to develop improved and effective trainings, consistent with best practices, on harassment for all students and employees who interact with students.

• Ensure that a counselor or other qualified mental health professional to be available during school hours for students in need.

• Hire a mental health consultant to review and assess current practices in the district relating to assisting students who are subject to harassment.

• Strengthen its annual anti-bullying survey.

• Enhance a recently formed harassment-prevention task force to advise the district regarding how to best foster a positive educational climate.

• Work with the Equity Center to identify hot spots in district schools where harassment is most problematic, including outdoor locations and on school buses, and work with the equity consultant to develop corrective actions.

Judge Ericksen could approve the decree within the coming weeks. As part of the agreement, the United States will monitor and approve the district’s adherence to the consent decree for a period of five years.

Other attorneys representing the student plaintiffs included: Christine P. Sun (SPLC); Christopher F. Stoll (NCLR); Ilona Turner (formerly of NCLR, now with the Transgender Law Center); Martin Chester, Chris Dolan, and Zack Stephenson (Faegre Baker Daniels LLP); and Leslie Lienemann (Culberth & Lienemann LLP).