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Anoka-Hennepin School Board Votes to Settle Suit by LGBT Students

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From guest blogger Nirvi Shah:

A group of students who sued the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota in federal court said late Monday they have settled with the district, which in exchange must provide significant new protections to prevent the harassment of students who are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

The settlement still has to be approved by a federal judge, but if that happens, it would resolve a suit filed last summer and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education that began in 2010, after the suicides of several students who were gay.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed the suits on behalf of six former and current students who said they had been bullied at school because of their real or perceived sexual orientation.

The complaints said the six students named in the suits were regularly subjected to anti-gay slurs at school, with the epithets "dyke," "homo," and "faggot" hurled by other students. Some were told to "kill yourself" or "you're going to hell," the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. The bullying sometimes was physical: One student was stabbed in the neck with a pencil; others were choked; some were pushed into lockers or urinated on. One student dropped out of school and others left the district, the newspaper reported. Some pondered suicide.

The groups said the settlement also resolves a related complaint filed against the district today by the federal Department of Justice.

Earlier this year, the district school board voted to end a policy in which teachers had to remain neutral if issues of sexual identity came up in class.

To resolve the suit, the students, federal government, and the district have entered into a consent decree. The agreement specifically says that teachers can affirm the dignity and self-worth of students, and any protected characteristics of students, such as being LGBT, without violating any district policy. It also provides for the six students to get a total of $270,000.

"No one should have to go through the kind of harassment that I did," one of the plaintiffs, student Dylon Frei, said in a statement. "I am happy this agreement includes real changes that will make our schools safer and more welcoming for other kids."

Among other steps under the consent decree, the district must:
• Hire the Great Lakes Equity 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."
• Ensure that a counselor or other qualified mental health professional to be available during school hours for students in need.
• Strengthen its annual anti-bullying survey.
• 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.

"This historic agreement marks a fresh start for the Anoka-Hennepin School District," said Sam Wolfe, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center's LGBT Project, in a statement. "Unfortunately, this district had become notorious for anti-LGBT hostility and discrimination. This consent decree sets the stage for Anoka-Hennepin to become a model for other school districts to follow in creating more respectful learning environments for all students in a thoughtful, systemic, and proactive way."

As part of the agreement, the federal government will monitor how the district adheres to the consent decree for five years.

Photo: Tears stream down Damien McGee-Backes' face after being asked about what he went through in the past few years of his life at his former school during a news conference after a settlement in the bullying lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District at the district headquarters in Coon Rapids, Minn., on March 5. (Renee Jones Schneider/The Star Tribune/AP)

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