Anoka-Hennepin School District Settles Lawsuits Over Sexual Neutrality Policy with Department of Justice

The DOJ and Department of Education, together with six private student plaintiffs and the Anoka-Hennepin School District filed a proposed consent decree yesterday to settle lawsuits filed last summer by civil rights groups and six student plaintiffs over a sexual neutrality policy blamed for bullying linked to the suicides of seven students over the past two years.

AnokaMetroWeekly's Chris Geidner writes:

In the DOJ complaint, DOJ lays out the findings of its investigation, which was conducted with the Department of Education and has led to a proposed settlement of the lawsuit and two ongoing lawsuits brought by students in the district. In October 2010, the Department of Education sent a letter to schools detailing their obligations under federal law to protect LGBT students from sexual harassment and gender-based harassment resulting from sex stereotypes.

Noting specific examples of discriminatory treatment faced by 10 students in the district, DOJ's investigation, according to today's filing, concluded, "The school and District officials with authority to address the sex-based harassment knew or should have known about the harassment [the students] experienced.

"Often, District personnel ignored these sex-based harassment allegations," DOJ lawyers wrote in the complaint, which was signed by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, the head of DOJ's Civil Rights Division. "In those instances when the District did respond to reports of sex-based harassment, the District's response improperly placed the burden of stopping the harassment on the student being harassed. … The District knew its responses to sex-based harassment were inadequate because the harassment continued and in certain instances escalated.

The AP reports:

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board approved the settlement 5-1 at its meeting Monday evening. The district agreed to a long list of measures to help prevent and address sex-based harassment at its middle and high schools, including hiring consultants and working with federal authorities to ensure the district complies with the terms. The district’s insurance carrier will pay the six current and former students named in the lawsuits a total of $270,000, and the district will tap about $500,000 of its own funds to implement the agreement.

VigilAnoka-Hennepin School District recently lashed out at a Rolling Stone magazine profile on its policy and the number of bullying-suicide incidents there.

Wrote the magazine:

Against this supercharged backdrop, the Anoka-Hennepin school district finds itself in the spotlight not only for the sheer number of suicides but because it is accused of having contributed to the death toll by cultivating an extreme anti-gay climate. "LGBTQ students don't feel safe at school," says Anoka Middle School for the Arts teacher Jefferson Fietek, using the acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning. "They're made to feel ashamed of who they are. They're bullied. And there's no one to stand up for them, because teachers are afraid of being fired."

In a release obtained by Towleroad, the Department of Justice lays out the steps the school must take per the consent decree.

If approved by the court, the consent decree will ensure that the school district:

Retains an expert consultant in the area of sex-based harassment to review the district’s policies and procedures concerning harassment;

Develops and implements a comprehensive plan for preventing and addressing student-on-student sex-based harassment at the middle and high schools;

Enhances and improves its training of faculty, staff and students on sex-based harassment;

Hires or appoints a Title IX coordinator to ensure proper implementation of the district’s sex-based harassment policies and procedures and district compliance with Title IX;

Retains an expert consultant in the area of mental health to address the needs of students who are victims of harassment;

Provides for other opportunities for student involvement and input into the district’s ongoing anti-harassment efforts;

Improves its system for maintaining records of investigations and responding to allegations of harassment;

Conducts ongoing monitoring and evaluations of its anti-harassment efforts; and

Submits annual compliance reports to the departments.

The consent decree is to remain in place for five years.