March 6, 2012 at 12:25 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
DOJ, DOE reach anti-bullying deal with Minn. school district

The Obama administration has arranged an agreement requiring Minnesota’s largest school district to change its policies after it allegedly allowed students to be subjected to anti-gay harassment.

On Monday night, the Departments of Justice and Education announced it had come to an agreement with six student plaintiffs and the Anoka-Hennepin School District and filed a proposed consent decree with the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota.

According to a statement from the Departments of Justice and Education, the consent decree will remain in place for five years and require the Anoka-Hennepin School District to undertake several initiatives:

  • retain an expert consultant in the area of sex-based harassment to review the district’s policies and procedures concerning harassment;
  • develop and implement a comprehensive plan for preventing and addressing student-on-student sex-based harassment at the middle and high schools;
  • improve its training of staff and students on sex-based harassment;
  • appoint a Title IX coordinator to ensure proper implementation of the district’s sex-based harassment policies and procedures and district compliance with Title IX;
  • retain an expert consultant in the area of mental health to address the needs of students who are victims of harassment;
  • provide for other opportunities for student involvement and input into the district’s ongoing anti-harassment efforts;
  • improve its system for maintaining records of investigations and responding to allegations of harassment;
  • conduct ongoing monitoring and evaluations of its anti-harassment efforts;
  • and submit annual compliance reports to the departments.

The agreement that must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Joan N. Ericksen, who’s adjudicating litigation involved in the case, for it to take effect.

In November 2010, the Justice Department received a complaint alleging the school district — which educates more than 40,000 students and oversees 37 schools — was allowing anti-gay harassment of students because they weren’t conforming to gender stereotypes.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the consent decree “provides a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform” to enhance the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s policies to protect students.

“The consent decree will build upon the district’s existing anti-harassment efforts to help create  an environment where all students feel safe in school, are free from harassment and can be themselves,” Perez said.

Russlynn Ali, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said the deal represents collaborative work to ensure students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District feel safe.

“We think their experience can be a model for other districts facing similar struggles, and we’re out here today to say that harassment of students based on failure to conform to gender stereotyping will be not tolerated,” Ali said.

No federal law prohibits schools from allowing harassment or discrimination on basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, the Obama administration found that the Anoka-Hennepin School District was in violation of Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibit harassment on the basis of gender, because schools allowed harassment against students who weren’t conforming to gender stereotypes.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to school districts in November 2010, the Department of Education informed schools it could be violation of existing laws protecting against discrimination on the basis of gender if it allowed anti-LGBT harassment in schools.

In July, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against the district on behalf of six students who say they experienced harassment and violence as a result of an anti-gay environment. As a result of this litigation, the district on the same day it announced it agreed the terms set forth by the Obama administration agreed to pay student plaintiffs a total of $270,000.

Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called the agreements “an important step” in making LGBT and gender non-conforming students feel safe in school.

“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,” Minter said. “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.”

On the same day the agreement was reached, the Justice Department filed a complaint as part of its standard practices to intervene in federal litigation against the Anoka-Hennepin School District. The complaint details harassment of ten students who are identified by letters such as Student A or Student B.

Student A alleged he was told “You’re a guy, act like it” was called “so gay” and “fag,” despite having never identifying his sexual orientation. Students spread false rumors that he was a “pedophile” and alleged he raped his mother. Additionally, other students threatened to kill him, pushed him, threw food at him and called him names nearly every day for two years.

In response, the district discouraged Student A from engaging in gender nonconforming behavior and implemented measures isolating Student A that failed to stop the harassment. One assistant principal allegedly told Student A’s parents to stop him from wearing feminine clothing to school. Staff members took away Student A’s feminine clothing and, in reference to his singing, told him, “Boys don’t do that.”

Another student, Student B, was allegedly called “‘gay boy,’ ‘homo,’ and ‘fag.'” He was allegedly pushed up against a wall and forcibly restrained. Students harassed him with taunts of a sexual nature, saying, ‘Your dads are gay, so you’re going to be gay. Why don’t you just go and suck their cocks now?’”

Student B identifies as straight, but, according to the complaint, participates in a sport “that his peers view as a feminine activity.” He was allegedly told he participates in “a girl’s sport,” and “If a boy is in a girl’s sport, then he must be gay.” Students allegedly also said, “Why don’t you join a real sport like football?”

As a result of this bullying, nine youths have committed suicide in this school district over the past two years. At least four suicide victims were victims of bullying because they were gay or perceived to be gay. Justin Aaberg, who was 15, hanged himself in July 2010 after being subjected to anti-gay harassment.

Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson called the consent decree “a positive statement” of the continuing efforts to ensure a “welcoming environment for all students and families in our district.”

“The District and its staff want the public to know that there is another side to the story that we have been and remain unable to tell due to data privacy laws: without exception, our staff investigated and responded properly to reported harassment,” Carlson said. “They disciplined students found to have bullied or harassed other students. However, no one would deny that bullying and harassment are real problems in our society and must be more thoroughly and consistently addressed.”

B. Todd Jones, U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, emphasized the component of the deal requiring the district to hire by September a Title IX consultant to review school policy, including practices that could affect students at risk for mental health problems.

“By the end of the year, the mental health consultant hired by the school will prepare a comprehensive report to the school board with very specific recommendations, and by January of next year, the school will present a plan implementing those recommendations,” Jones said. “We firmly believe that this’ll make a real difference in the lives of students who are struggling as victims of harassment.”

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Anoka-Hennepin School District board voted 5-1 on Monday to approve the agreement. The lone school board member to vote it, Kathy Tingelstad, resigned afterwards, reportedly citing concerns about cost, federal intervention in local schools and the precedent set for other districts.

In the conference call, Perez said the U.S. government is involved because it’s responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws prohibiting against harassment in schools on the basis of gender.

“We have federal laws on the books that protect situations such as this, and so we are simply doing our job or ensuring equal educational opportunity and promoting a safe and healthy learning environment,” Perez said.

Perez said the cost of the deal over the course of five years was $500,000 based on estimates from the district superintendent, but added the district will have opportunities to access federal money to pay for initiatives.

“I think when you address the question of costs, you also have to address the question of benefits, and I think the benefits are priceless,” Perez said. “When you have a nurturing environment that enables students to learn that return on investment is absolutely priceless.”

Legislation that would explicitly ban discrimination against LGBT students, known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act, is pending before Congress. The bill is sponsored in the House by gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and in the Senate by Sen Al Franken (D-Minn.). The Obama administration has yet to endorse the legislation.

Perez said a having law on the books like the Student Non-Discrimination Act would “certainly be helpful,” but stopped short of offering a full-throated endorsement of the bill.

“We have had conversations with various stakeholders on the Hill and spoken about that, and are carefully reviewing that particular proposal,” Perez said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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