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How Anoka-Hennepin Failed Its Bullied LGBT Students

By Zack Ford  

"How Anoka-Hennepin Failed Its Bullied LGBT Students"

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Tammy Aaberg remembers her son, Justin, who committed suicide after experiencing relentless bullying in the district.

As ThinkProgress reported earlier, the Department of Justice found through its investigation that Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District did not properly intervene when its students were harassed for their gender non-conforming identities. In the report, the DOJ profiled 10 current and former students, all of whom experienced verbal and often physical threats because of their perceived gender or sexual orientation and faced mental health and/or educational consequences when the district failed to mitigate the bullying. In most of the cases, the district placed burdens on the bullied student rather than take steps to interrupt the harassment, and in every case, the district had evidence that the harassment continued but did not take further action.

Though the school’s former “neutrality” policy exemplified how LGBT students have been made to feel invisible, these profiles reveal the many ways school administrators inappropriately responded to reports of bullying, allowing it to persist. Here are some examples:

  • BLAME THE VICTIM: In many cases, the district discouraged the students from engaging in the gender non-conforming behavior for which they were targeted, compounding the stigma by giving the students the impression they were inviting their own bullying. For example, an assistant principal told Student A’s parents to prohibit him from wearing feminine clothing to school and some staff members even took away some of his feminine clothing, enforcing gender norms.
  • TREAT THE SYMPTOMS: Student A was also assigned an escort to walk him to his classes and forced him to change for physical education in the assistant principal’s office, actions which made him feel like he was being punished.
  • MAKE BUDGETARY EXCUSES: One school administrator told Student B’s parents the school simply didn’t have the resources to train teachers teachers and students about harassment.
  • COMPROMISE VICTIM’S EDUCATION: Student B had to leave class early to avoid his bullies, and often missed homework assignments.
  • SHRUG IT OFF: After Student C was tripped on the stairs and called “guy,” “fag,” and “transvestite,” her middle school principal told her to just not let the comments bother her. An assistant principal told Student G, “Boys will be boys and you just have to deal with it” after students accused his father of being a pedophile.
  • PUNISH THE VICTIM: When the district’s measures failed to prevent Student D’s harassment, she stopped attending physical education for her own safety and received lunch and after-school detention and a failing grade.
  • BURDEN THE VICTIM: Rather than remove his bully from the classroom, the school transferred Student E to a different math class. Similarly, Student F transferred to an entirely different high school just to avoid harassment, but it persisted there as well.
  • PLEAD IGNORANCE: The school told Student E there was nothing it could do after he was pushed into a locker because he couldn’t identify the bully and it wasn’t captured on camera.
  • ABANDON THE VICTIM: After Student E provided a two page list of harassers, administrators told him and his parents they did not want him in school because the environment was not safe for him. He missed five days, and the harassment continued when he returned. He is now homeschooled.

The administration’s mindset in all of these incidents was a resignation that harassment is par for the course and there is nothing they can do about it. Hopefully, the five-year rehabilitation mandated by the consent decree the district has agreed to will shine light on how to create a learning environment that is safe and welcoming for all students.

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