DOJ, NCLR win improvements to school

The National Center for Lesbian Rights joined with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education Tuesday in an agreement with a Minnesota school district to take steps to prevent harassment of students who do not conform to gender stereotypes.

The agreement, announced Monday by NCLR and on Tuesday by the Departments of Justice and Education, ends two lawsuits in federal court against the Anoka-Hennepin School District

One was filed by the DOJ and the other was filed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center in the U.S. District Court for Minnesota.

In Doe v. Anoka-Hennepin School District, NCLR challenged the constitutionality of the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s “Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy” that prohibited school staff “from offering support to LGBT students or acknowledging the existence of LGBT people.”

The Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest school district in the state, serves 40,000 students in the Twin Cities area. Its website boasts that its “Character Education” program “teaches and emphasizes the core values of respect, responsibility, appreciation of diversity, integrity and compassion.”

NCLR said the agreement, which must be approved by a federal judge, promises the district will develop “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 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,” noted NCLR.

NCLR said the agreement calls for the six student plaintiffs in NCLR’s complaint, all of whom were either gay or perceived to be gay, to receive a total of $270,000 in damages.

NCLR filed its lawsuit last July and the DOJ quickly followed with an investigation of a complaint that the district’s middle and high schools were unsafe for students who did not conform to gender stereotypes.

DOJ’s investigation included interviews with more than 60 people, including former students, parents, and staff. It found that some students were threatened with physical violence and verbal abuse on a daily basis, prompting some students to drop out of school and others attempted suicide.

“Students cannot learn if they are afraid to go to school,” said DOJ Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, in a statement Tuesday. “Students cannot learn if they are being harassed and threatened.  Students cannot learn if they are not free to be themselves.  Students cannot learn if they feel that school administrators can’t and don’t protect them.”

“Bullying cannot be a rite of passage in our nation’s schools,” said Perez. “Instead, our schools must be safe and nurturing environments that promote learning and full participation by all students.”

Under the agreement, the school district has agreed to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for preventing and addressing student harassment of other students and to submit an annual report to the DOJ and Department of Education about its efforts. It also calls for adding personnel to help students who have been subjected to harassment and to ensure that the district complies with federal laws prohibiting harassment.

The agreement comes at a politically loaded time in Minnesota. The Minnesota legislature voted last May to put an initiative on the November 2012 ballot seeking to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

The friends and family of four teenagers who committed suicide in the district in recent years told a local newspaper that at least two of them were targeted specifically because they were either gay or perceived to be gay.

Yet Anoka-Hennepin’s policy, as revised in 2009, directed teachers and staff to “remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation” and leave such discussions to the students’ families and churches.

NCLR attorney Ilona Turner said, at the time the lawsuit was filed, that the policy singled out gays for exclusion and had a “direct” influence on the anti-gay atmosphere in the schools.

“Students get the message loud and clear that being gay is so shameful it can’t be mentioned,” said Turner. “And teachers are not sure they can even intervene when they see harassment.”

DOJ’s Perez said the school district was “very cooperative” in coming to an agreement. NCLR legal director Shannon Minter said the district dropped its “neutrality” policy last month and in its placed adopted a Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum policy. While the new policy “does not target anything to do with sexual orientation or gender identity or LGBT issues,” said Minter, it provides general guidelines for how teachers and other school staff should deal with issues on which there are differing opinions.”

“We don’t think they need any policy at all, but we are thrilled that the ‘neutrality’ policy is off the books,” said Minter, “and the consent decree specifically clarifies that the new policy does not prevent teachers from affirming a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  That provision was extremely important to us.”

Leave a Reply