Anoka-Hennepin school district faces lawsuit over harassment of gays

Dennis Carlson
In this Oct. 8, 2010 photo, Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendent Dennis Carlson sits outside Coon Rapids High School in Coon Rapids, Minn. before the start of homecoming festivities.
AP Photo/Dawn Villella

Two national civil rights groups say they will sue the Anoka-Hennepin school district if leaders there don't properly address anti-gay harassment.

Lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights say they have proof that Anoka-Hennepin students have been harassed for being gay or perceived as gay and that harassment violates federal law.

The lawsuit threat came in a letter sent Tuesday to Anoka-Hennepin superintendent Dennis Carlson.

The letter explains that the two groups have been investigating the district and have found that students who are or perceived to be gay or lesbian are in jeopardy and in a hostile environment when they're at school.

Sam Wolfe with the Southern Poverty Law Center said Anoka-Hennepin is breaking federal law by allowing such a culture to exist.

"On a daily basis they're going into the schools and into the hallways -- other kids are calling them names, such as 'faggot' and other names about either their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity," Wolfe said. "And it's a continual thing."

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Wolfe's letter outlines examples of harassment of at least three unnamed current or former students, but he said it's still open-ended as far as how many clients he'll eventually have if a settlement can't be reached.

Wolfe said his group will sue Anoka-Hennepin unless it does two things: compensates his clients and repeals a district policy that requires staff to be neutral in dealing with sexual orientation.

That so-called "neutrality policy" has been at the center of months of controversy within the district. The district maintains the neutrality policy only applies to curriculum matters but critics say it's vague and confusing.

District teachers have told MPR news privately that there's been little to no training on the policy so they don't know whether, for example, they can even talk to a student who comes out to them or wants to report harassment.

Wolfe said his group confirmed that confusion through its own interviews with staff. He refers to the neutrality policy as a "gag policy."

"My sense is that the gag policy is really borne of fear, of homophobia," he said. "And it's this type of misguided policy that we see in this district has had terrible consequences."

Superintendent Dennis Carlson said his district always responds to harassment and bullying, but he says the district can only do that when officials know something has happened so people should speak up. He also said this afternoon he will meet with the groups.

"If there's something they know that we don't know, we'd like to know what it is," Carlson said. "And as soon as we know it, we'll take appropriate action."

Carlson also maintains his district has not broken anti-discrimination laws.

This isn't the first time Carlson has met with the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights. In January, the groups sued the district because it wouldn't allow two lesbians to be crowned as royalty at a school dance. The two sides worked out an agreement in less than two days.

There are already signs that any agreement this time would take longer. On the demand that the district revoke that neutrality policy, Carlson said, "The board has given me no indication that they're interested in doing anything with the neturality policy. They do not see the connection between that and the bullying and harassment of students; they see that as entirely separate."

The groups have asked to meet with the district in two weeks. Wolfe said he'll wait to file any lawsuit until he hears back from the district.