Anoka-Hennepin, the largest school district in Minnesota, has come under criticism for its history of anti-LGBT policies that likely contributed to the suicides of eight students over just two years, and now a Department of Justice investigation has concluded that the district was indeed negligent in its handling of student harassment. With the release of its findings, the DOJ filed a complaint against the district, joining two private student harassment lawsuits so it could help facilitate the consent decree settlement agreed to last night. After interviews with over 60 individuals, the DOJ found that the district failed to properly intervene to protect students and prevent further harassment:
In sum, students in the District experienced and reported verbal and physical sex-based harassment because of their gender nonconformity. Male students in the District report that they are called pejorative words such as “girl,” “he-she,” “fag,” or “gay” on a daily basis because of their failure to conform to male stereotypes. Likewise, female students report being called pejorative words such as “manly,” “guy,” or “he-she” regularly because of their failure to conform to female stereotypes. In addition, District students have faced death threats and other threats to their physical safety because of their gender nonconformity. Furthermore, students have also regularly experienced physical, verbal, and non-verbal conduct that constitutes sexual harassment. The District knew or should have known about the sex-based harassment and either failed to respond at all or failed to respond appropriately and adequately to the harassment and prevent its recurrence.
Last month, the district took its first step in the right direction, by replacing its gay-censoring “neutrality” curriculum policy with language geared toward respecting students’ identities. Per the consent decree, the district has agreed to a five-year rehabilitation plan with the DOJ and Department of Education to truly create a safer environment for students. The requirements of that agreement include:
- Retain the Great Lakes Equity Center, an equity assistance center based at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis to provide a comprehensive, systemic review and recommend revisions to district policies and practices related to sex and sexual-orientation related harassment.
- Fully investigate reports of harassment; escalate remedial efforts through additional measures when students are harassed on a repeated basis; and mitigate the effects of harassment that occurs.
- Take proactive measures to address the hostile environment.
- Develop procedures for parental notification while maintaining sensitivity to a student’s right of privacy relating to their real or perceived orientation or gender identity.
- Hire a district-level, harassment-prevention official who will help lead the district’s efforts to “eliminate and prevent future instances of harassment in its education programs and activities.”
- Work with the Equity Center, Title IX /Equity Coordinator to develop improved and effective trainings, consistent with best practices, on harassment for all students and employees who interact with students.
- Ensure that a counselor or other qualified mental health professional to be available during school hours for students in need.
- Hire a mental health consultant to review and assess current practices in the district relating to assisting students who are subject to harassment.
- Strengthen its annual anti-bullying survey.
- Enhance a recently formed harassment-prevention task force to advise the district regarding how to best foster a positive educational climate.
- Work with the Equity Center to identify hot spots in district schools where harassment is most problematic, including outdoor locations and on school buses, and work with the equity consultant to develop corrective actions.
The district plans to tap $500,000 to implement this agreement. In addition, the district’s insurance will pay out a total of $270,000 to the six current and former students named in the lawsuits. One school board member, Kathy Tingelstad, voted against the decree and resigned in protest, arguing it cost too much and that the district had been “drug through the mud” by the “out-of-state bullies” who brought forth the complaints.