Anoka-Hennepin schools settle bullying lawsuits; board member quits in protest
Sarah Horner, Pioneer Press, March 6, 2012 –
With tears in his eyes, Dylon Frei told the crowd gathered Monday night outside the Anoka-Hennepin school district’s board room that middle school had been tough.
He was repeatedly called “fag,” pushed into lockers and even attacked in a school bathroom.
With a few of his fellow student plaintiffs standing teary-eyed nearby, Frie said a board vote moments earlier gave him hope that for him, a gay 15-year-old, high school might be different.
With one member resigning in protest, the board voted 5-1 Monday night to accept a settlement agreement with Frei and five other former and current district students who had filed two lawsuits over a policy requiring staff to remain neutral when the topic of sexual orientation came up in the classroom.
Represented by two national civil rights groups, the students sued in July, alleging the district failed to stop bullying so pervasive that it caused many of them to transfer or drop out and some of them to attempt suicide.
All said they were bullied because of their real or perceived sexual orientation.
The settlement requires the district to hire staff to improve the climate for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and more closely monitor and report bullying.
The district also must pay a lump sum of $270,000 to be divided among the student plaintiffs.
Supporters at the meeting called the decision “historic” and “precedent setting” for districts across the country.
“I am just like really glad we could make a difference for everybody, not just us,” Frei said. “Change is coming, I can feel it.”
The settlement comes less than a month after the board voted to replace its controversial policy on sexual orientation, a major target of the lawsuits. The language – dubbed the neutrality policy – required staff to stay neutral on GLBT topics in school.
The suits claimed the policy stopped staff members from effectively defending victims of anti-gay bullying out of fear of not appearing neutral.
Board member Kathy Tingelstad was the lone vote against Monday’s decision.
The former Republican state representative announced her decision to resign immediately after the vote. Tingelstad said the settlement was a result of pressure from outside groups and would be costly to the cash-strapped district.
“Like a target of bullying, I choose to leave the situation by resigning – instead of fighting back against the out-of-state bullies,” she said.
The Parents Action League, a parents group formed in support of the district’s policy on sexual orientation, also opposed the agreement.
“This was not about bullying,” president Laurie Thompson said in a statement. “Making schools safe for ‘gay’ kids means indoctrinating impressionable, young minds with homosexual propaganda.”
Besides ending the lawsuits, the settlement closes a federal investigation of the district launched in 2010 after allegations of GLBT harassment were made to the U.S. departments of Justice and Education.
The terms of the settlement require the district to hire an equity consultant, a Title IX coordinator and a mental health consultant to review district policies and ensure the district does a better job of addressing harassment.
It also must conduct more student and staff training on bullying and adopt a new monitoring system to track harassment.
It is estimated the changes will cost the 39,000-student district – Minnesota’s largest – about $500,000, board chairman Tom Heidemann said.
The Justice Department is in charge of tracking compliance until 2017.
Although the suits allege district employees were unresponsive to bullying reports, Heidemann said an Anoka-Hennepin investigation found staff acted in a “professional, timely and appropriate manner.”
The decision to settle, Heidemann said, was made to save the district time and money that might have been lost in a lengthy legal battle.
“At the end of the day, the board would rather focus our limited resources on educating kids and keeping them safe,” he said.
Superintendent Dennis Carlson said the terms of the agreement were in line with progress the district already has been making on student safety.
“Our gay students deserve to feel safe and be safe – just like everyone else in our public schools,” he said.
Standing near his 15-year-old son, Damian, Michael McGee thanked him and the five other student plaintiffs for their bravery.
“If it were not for their courage and determination to tell their stories and to stand up and say, ‘Enough, I deserve better; we all deserve better,’ we would not be on the precipice of creating change,” McGee told the six, who will detail their personal experiences at a news conference this morning.
Sarah Horner can be reached at 651-228-5539. Follow her at twitter.com/hornsarah.