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Anoka-Hennepin School District faces Federal Lawsuit over “Neutrality” Policy

Minnesota’s largest school district faces a Federal suit by the Southern Poverty Law Center; National Center for Lesbian Rights over bullying.

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MINNESOTA – Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota’s largest school district that serves 40,000 students was the target of a a Federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and Faegre & Benson, LLP.

According to SPLC and NCLR, the lawsuit charges that LGBT students and students perceived as LGBT were subjected to anti-LGBT slurs on a daily basis and were physically threatened or attacked by peers. While many of these abuses occurred in front of teachers or were reported to school officials, school personnel almost always took insufficient action to stop the abuse.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district has been the subject of an investigation since the fall of 2010, after several students and community members came forward to report both verbal and physical bullying and harassment . During the ten month investigation, SPLC heard from students and teachers about concerns regarding the “neutrality” policy and implications of a gag policy in the classroom.

According to Sam Wolfe, lead attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, students have reported being called vicious anti-gay slurs and subjected to being physically assaulted pushed into school lockers and trash cans due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. One student even was reportedly attacked by a pencil and stabbed in the back of the neck.

Since 2009, the Anoka-Hennepin community has also suffered great loss as six students have completed suicide allegedly due to bullying and harassment in the district, making it one of the highest in the nation.

“Ten months ago we came to Anoka because a community was grieving over the loss of their children and we found a pattern in the school district ” said Sam Wolfe, lead attorney on the case for the SPLC.

The Ankoa-Hennepin school district “neutrality” policy has been in place since 1995 and restricts teachers from speaking about lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) persons in the classroom. Local teachers have also come forward to speak out against the “neutrality” policy because they say it restricts discussions and enforcement of bullying and harassment polices and does not create a safe school environment often leaving them unable to to help.

SPLC and NCLR have been in talks with the Ankoa-Hennepin school district since May and have asked the district to remove its so-called “neutrality” gag policy. The Anoka- Hennepin school district announced Wednesday that it will not change the “neutrality” policy but instead offered to work with SPLC and NCLR to provide training instead.

“There is something seriously wrong in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, and district officials know it,” said NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell, Esq. “In school after school, kids who are perceived as gay are harassed mercilessly until they drop out, melt down, or lash back. This epidemic of harassment—unlike anything we’ve seen in neighboring districts—is plainly fueled by the district’s shameful and illegal policy singling out LGBT people and LGBT people alone for total exclusion from acknowledgement within the classroom.”

GLSEN released a research brief last month based on findings from Minnesota LGBT students who participated in the 2009 National School Climate Survey. The brief found that 84% of Minnesota LGBT students had been harassed or assaulted in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 61% because of their gender expression.

“These polices have a chilling effect on lgbt students” said Eliza Byard, Executive Director of GLSEN

SPLC and NCLR are not the only groups asking the Anoka-Hennepin school district to remove the “neutrality’ policy.

Local groups in Minnesota, such as the Anoka Gay Equity Team, have been asking for the removal of the policy in support of SPLC and NCLR. Justin Anderson, a 2010 graduate of Blaine High School in Anoka-Hennepin and a volunteer with the Equity Team presented a petition to the Anoka-Hennepin school board meeting last week from change.org with over 12,000 signatures asking the school board to remove the “neutrality” policy and put students first.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district is also facing a Federal investigation announced this week.

The Department of Justice along with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights have been investigating the school district after a rash of suicides this past Fall and looking into allegations of a hostile environment for students.

Last October, the Department of Education and Office of Civil Rights released a Dear Colleague letter to schools nationwide that gave a reminder about OCR enforcement and guidance on bullying and harassment under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Shannon Cuttle is a educator, school administrator, safe schools trainer, community organizer and policy wonk. She is the Director of the Safe Schools Action Network a national non-profit dedicated to creating inclusive safe schools and can also be found at change.org.

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Police describe Wilton Manors Pride incident as ‘fatal traffic crash’

Pickup truck driver identified as 77-year-old man

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A screenshot from a video taken at the scene by Joey Spears. (Image courtesy of @pinto_spears, via Twitter.) Screenshot used with permission from South Florida Gay News.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Sunday released additional information about an incident at a Wilton Manors Pride parade that left one person dead and another injured.

A press release notes a 77-year-old man who was “a participant who had ailments preventing him from walking the duration of the parade and was selected to drive as the lead vehicle” was behind the wheel of a 2011 white Dodge Ram pickup truck that struck the two people near the Stonewall Pride Parade’s staging area shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday.

“As the vehicle began to move forward in anticipation for the start of the parade, the vehicle accelerated unexpectedly, striking two pedestrians,” reads the press release. “After striking the pedestrians, the driver continued across all lanes of traffic, ultimately crashing into the fence of a business on the west side of the street.”

“The driver remained on scene and has been cooperative with investigators for the duration of the investigation,” further notes the press release. “A DUI investigation of the driver was conducted on scene and showed no signs of impairment.”

The press release confirms the driver and the two people he hit are members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus.

Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue transported both victims to Broward Health Medical Center “with serious injuries.” The press release notes one of the victims died shortly after he arrived at the hospital.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department, which is leading the investigation, has not publicly identified the victims and the driver, but the press release describes the incident as a “fatal traffic crash.” The press release notes the second victim remains hospitalized at Broward Health Medical Center, but “is expected to survive.”

“While no arrests have been made, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department continues to investigate this incident and will not be releasing the names of the involved parties due to the status of the investigation,” says the press release. “The Fort Lauderdale Police Department asks anyone who may have witnessed this incident, who has not already spoken to investigators, to contact Traffic Homicide Investigator Paul Williams at (954) 828-5755.”

The pickup truck narrowly avoided U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was in a convertible participating in the parade. Florida Congressman Ted Deutch was also nearby.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the tragic accident that occurred when the Stonewall Pride Parade was just getting started,” said Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus President Justin Knight in a statement he issued after the incident. “Our fellow chorus members were those injured and the driver was also part of the chorus family.”

“To my knowledge, this was not an attack on the LGBTQ community,” added Knight. “We anticipate more details to follow and ask for the community’s love and support.”

Fort Lauderdale mayor initially described incident as anti-LGBTQ ‘terrorist attack’

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis initially described the incident as “a terrorist attack against the LGBT community,” without any official confirmation. Detective Ali Adamson of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Saturday confirmed to reporters that investigators are “working with” the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but stressed the “investigation is active and we are considering and evaluating all possibilities.”

“Last evening, at the start of what was to be a celebration of pride for the LGBT community and commemoration of our hard-won victories for equality, our community faced the worst of tragedies. The grief of our LGBT community — and greater Fort Lauderdale as a whole — is palpable,” said Trantalis on Sunday in a statement he posted to his Facebook page.

“I was an eyewitness to the horrifying events. It terrorized me and all around me. I reported what I saw to law enforcement and had strong concerns about what transpired — concerns for the safety of my community. I feared it could be intentional based on what I saw from mere feet away,” he added.

Trantalis added “law enforcement took what appeared obvious to me and others nearby and investigated further — as is their job.”

“As the facts continue to be pieced together, a picture is emerging of an accident in which a truck careened out of control,” he said. “As a result, one man died, two others were injured and the lives of two members of Congress were at risk. My heart breaks for all impacted by this tragedy.”

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ACLU and Justice Department to jointly challenge anti-Trans laws

Recently passed anti-transgender laws in West Virginia and Arkansas violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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U.S. Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building (Photo Credit: GSA U.S. Government)

WASHINGTON – In court documents filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia and in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, the U.S. Department of Justice, in Statement of Interest filings, joined the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU), arguing that recently passed anti-transgender laws in West Virginia and Arkansas violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The suits filed by the ACLU challenges an Arkansas law that bans gender-affirming care for transgender youth and a West Virginia law banning transgender youth from participating in school sports.

Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice with the American Civil Liberties Union LGBTQ & HIV Project, issued the following statement responding to the Department of Justice submitting a statement of interest in two federal courts supporting transgender youth;

“Today’s filings from the Department of Justice send a powerful message that discrimination against transgender youth is not just wrong, it is also plainly unconstitutional. These filings from the Department of Justice confirm what we have been telling legislatures all year: Banning trans youth from sports and denying trans youth health care violates the Constitution and federal law. We hope that state legislatures finally get the message.” 

Law and Crime reported that in the West Virginia case filing, the Justice Dept. argued that House Bill 3293, which bans transgender athletes at public schools from competing in female sports at the middle school, high school, and collegiate level, violates both the Equal Protection Clause and  Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972.

The case stemmed from a complaint filed by the parents of transgender girl who said their daughter was unlawfully prohibited from trying out for the school’s cross-country track team because of the measure.

In Arkansas, the Justice Dept. backed an ACLU-filed lawsuit challenging a state law (Act 626) which bans gender-affirming health care for transgender youths. The DOJ also claims that state ban violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Law & Crime reported.

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Immigrant rights groups demand ICE release transgender, HIV-positive detainees

Letter notes Roxsana Hernández case

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The Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., is a privately-run facility that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses to house some of its detainees. Eight immigrant rights groups have demanded ICE release all transgender people and people with HIV in their custody. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Eight immigrant advocacy groups this week demanded the release of all transgender and HIV-positive people who are in immigrant detention facilities.

Immigration Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Transgender Law Center, the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, the Center for Victims of Torture, Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, Mijente and the National Immigrant Justice Center made the request in a letter they sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Tae Johnson on June 16.

“As you know, transgender and HIV-positive people are severely suffering in U.S. immigration detention facilities,” reads the letter. “Those who do not perish from mortally deficient medical negligence are regularly mistreated, isolated and sexually assaulted.”

The letter notes DHS “for years” has “attempted to create conditions of confinement that are safe for these historically disenfranchised minorities.”

“This has been a fool’s errand,” it says. “Under both Democrat and Republican leadership, DHS has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars attempting to overcome a simple and inevitable truth: It is not possible for the U.S. government to house transgender and HIV-positive asylum seekers safely. Every progressive policy, every well-meaning protocol and every specialized facility has utterly failed. This has to stop. It is in your exclusive power to put an end to this ongoing human rights atrocity.”

“What makes this situation even more intolerable, is that the vast majority of the transgender and HIV-positive people suffering in immigration detention fled to the U.S. to escape persecution and torture,” adds the letter. “To these asylum seekers, the U.S. is more than a symbol of liberty. It is one of the few places in the world where they may hope to build a safer future. And yet, by detaining trans and HIV-positive people in such inhumane and unsafe conditions, the U.S. government is subjecting them to some of the same kinds of mistreatment they sought to escape.”

The groups in their letter demand ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection “to immediately release all transgender and HIV-positive people in their custody” and “review its system for identifying transgender and HIV-positive individuals, and work with stakeholders to ensure that it is effective and safe.” The groups also seek the creation of a policy “that deems all transgender and HIV-positive individuals non-detainable.”

The letter notes the case of Roxsana Hernández, a trans asylum seeker from Honduras with HIV who died in a New Mexico hospital on May 25, 2018, while she was in ICE custody.

Hernández’s family in a lawsuit it has filed against the federal government and five private companies who were responsible for Hernández’s care allege she did not have adequate access to medical care and other basic needs from the time she asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego on May 9, 2018, to her arrival at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a privately-run facility in Milan, N.M., a week later.

ICE in 2017 opened a unit for trans women at the Cibola County Correctional Center. It closed last year.

A picture of Roxsana Hernández, a transgender Honduran woman with HIV who died in ICE custody in 2018, hangs on a wall inside the offices of Colectivo Unidad Color Rosa, an LGBTQ advocacy group in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The letter also notes the case of Johana “Joa” Medina León, a trans woman with HIV from El Salvador who asked for asylum in the U.S. in 2019 after she suffered persecution in her home country because of her gender identity.

Medina was in ICE custody at the privately-run Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., until her transfer to a hospital in nearby El Paso, Texas, on May 28, 2019. ICE on the same day released Medina from their custody.

Medina died three days later.

“She became worse, worse, worse,” Medina’s mother, Patricia Medina de Barrientos, told the Washington Blade in an exclusive interview in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador that took place a few weeks after Medina’s death. “She asked for help because she was a nurse, but they refused. She was denied help. There was no medical attention.”

Johana “Joa” Medina León, a transgender woman with HIV from El Salvador, died on June 1, 2019, at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, three days after ICE released her from their custody. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Medina de Barrientos)

The letter also includes testimonials from dozens of other trans and/or HIV-positive people who say they suffered physical abuse and survived sexual assault while in ICE custody. They also allege they did not receive adequate health care — including access to hormones and antiretroviral drugs — while in detention.

“Throwing LGBTQ and HIV-positive asylum seekers into prison is cruel, expensive and dangerous. For transgender and HIV-positive people, it can even be deadly,” said Immigration Equality Policy Director Bridget Crawford in a statement. “In response to years of consistently documented abuses against the community, the government has implemented ineffective half-measures that have utterly failed. That is why we have demanded that DHS release all transgender and HIV-positive people immediately. No one should ever be locked into prison because they fled persecution based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. Doing so during a pandemic is a human rights atrocity.”

Immigration Equality is among the groups that have previously demanded ICE release all trans people who are in their custody. Advocacy organizations have also called for the release of people with HIV in ICE custody, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DHS, which oversees ICE, has not responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the June 16 letter.

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