School district pays student who was harassed by teachers

The Anoka-Hennepin School District has agreed to pay $25,000 to the family of a high school student who was harassed for months by two teachers because of his perceived sexual orientation.

The student was participating in the STEP, or Secondary Technical Education Program, at Anoka Hennepin Technical College during the 2007-2008 school year, when two teachers started harassing him, according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

Diane Cleveland, one of the teachers, signaled him out on nearly a daily basis by making jokes, saying his "boat floats in a different direction than the rest of the guys in the class," and his "fence swings both ways," according to the report.

Cleveland made the comments in front of other students and allowed them to laugh, according to the report. She would also share her comments with another teacher, Walter Filson, who repeated the remarks, added his own jokes, and allowed other students in the class to joke about the boy's perceived sexual orientation, the report said.

Neither Cleveland nor Filson could be immediately reached for comment.

District officials acknowledged the boy had been subjected to regular comments, jokes and innuendos, which forced him to transfer to a school 25 miles away from home to escape harassment.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

"In this case, we felt that the student certainly had suffered as a result," said Mary Olson, communications director for the Anoka Hennepin School District. "We felt it was the right thing to compensate the student and his family for that."

But the district denied it violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and said the settlement did not constitute an admission of liability or of any wrongdoing, according to the Department of Human Rights.

The investigation showed that the school district had subjected the student to "conduct severe or pervasive enough to create an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive," according to the report.

The student's mother requested that her son be removed from both teachers' classrooms in January 2008 as a result of the humiliation.

Cleveland was reassigned to a new classroom for a week, although the report said she only completed one day of the re-assignment, called in sick for the remainder of the week, and returned to the classroom for a new semester. Filson remained in the classroom indefinitely.

Both Filson and Cleveland continue to teach at the STEP program. Filson, who teaches law enforcement, has worked for the district since 2002. Cleveland teaches social studies and has worked on and off for the district since 1998.

Both have outstanding reviews and have won some of the districts top awards, according to Olson, the district spokeswoman, who described the incidents as isolated.

She said the school district has had a harassment policy since 1985, and an anti-bullying program since 2001.

"It is very disturbing that something like this would have gone on for a number of months before it was reported by anyone," Olson said. "It's something that we certainly wouldn't expect because we've had a very strong harassment policy in place."