Lawsuit details harassment claims at Anoka-Hennepin schools

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Anoka-Hennepin lawsuit
Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, addresses reporters outside Jackson Middle School in Champlin, Minn., on July 21, 2011. To her left stands 14-year-old Kyle Rooker, who spoke of the harassment he has faced while at school. The SPLC is one of two national civil rights groups arguing that Anoka-Hennepin schools' policy contributes to a hostile environment for gay students.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Two national civil rights groups on Thursday announced a lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District over a policy they say contributes to a hostile environment for gay students.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center announced the lawsuit during a news conference in Champlin.

The suit was filed on behalf of several students who claim they were harassed for their sexual orientation. They say students who are either gay or perceived to be gay, are called names and face physical threats.

The groups had requested the district change its sexual orientation curriculum policy, which says that sexual orientation issues aren't part of the regular curriculum. The policy instructs teachers to remain neutral if the subject comes up in class.

During the news conference, one of the plaintiffs, 14-year-old Kyle Rooker, said he's faced almost daily harrassment.

"For the last three years, kids have been calling me names and shoving me into lockers and desks and walls. Just because they say I am different," he said.

Rooker said school officials haven't done enough to address the harassment he's experienced. He said teachers wanted to help him but didn't know how because of the policy.

Rooker's mother, Rebecca, and one other parent, Jeffrey Frei, also spoke at the news conference of their struggles to keep their children safe.

Frei said they want the district to end the policy, and come up with better protections for kids being bullied.

"We need to make an end to this for my son, for our family and for every other family out there, especially the kids that are sitting there in silence that maybe don't have a support system in their family like my son has," said Frei.

School district spokeswoman Mary Olson said officials stand by the policy and are disappointed the groups decided to go ahead with the lawsuit. The district would have preferred to work with them to improve teacher training and student awareness on bullying, Olson said.

The advocacy groups have said no training program can be effective without repealing the policy, which they call a "gag policy."

"The gag policy is blatantly discriminatory and unconstitutional," said Ilona Turner, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "It singles out one particular vulnerable group, LGBT people, and requires that they and only they be excluded from mention in the classroom."

Olson said the school district doesn't consider the policy a "gag policy."

"Teachers are allowed to speak about homosexuality as long as it is age appropriate, fact-based and related to the curriculum, and that they remain neutral," she said.

But Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the school district has failed to address the harassment of gay students.

"In school after school, kids who are perceived as gay are harassed mercilessly until they drop out, melt down, or lash back," Kendell said in a press release announcing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed in federal court gives examples of students being threatened or attacked by peers, and alleges that teachers and administrators almost always took insufficient action to stop the abuse.

The suit argues that the students' rights were violated under the U.S. Constitution, Title IX and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The policy has come under scrutiny in the wake of at least seven student suicides in the district in the past two years. Parents and students say some of those students had been bullied.

Other school districts have faced similar lawsuits, according to Mary Jane Morrison, a professor at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, and some of those lawsuits have prevailed.

"The challengers to the school districts have held the school districts accountable for not protecting students from being bullied on account of their perceived or actual sexual orientation," said Morrison.

In this case, Morrison said the civil rights groups' claim could be tough to prove, since it would need to show that the school district not only knew the students were being bullied, and didn't help protect them, but also "that the policy of the school district itself exacerbated the problem by creating an atmosphere that encouraged this kind of bullying," she said.

In addition to the lawsuit, the U.S. Justice Department disclosed this week that it is investigating a harassment complaint in the district and has met with school leaders about the district's policies and procedures.

LAWSUIT DETAILS

The lawsuit filed Thursday details allegations made by five students:

• An 18-year-old lesbian student who dropped out of Anoka High School in October 2010 after being harassed alleges that the harassment began when she was in 10th grade, when a photo of her and her girlfriend was distributed with text that said in part, "she's a lesbian — if she's rooming with you, she might try something." Verbal and physical abuse continued, and at most teachers told other students to "knock it off," according to the lawsuit. After dropping out, she tried to kill herself, the lawsuit said.

• A 14-year-old boy who has been perceived as gay by other students alleges that school officials responded to the harassment by further isolating him from other students rather than responding to the harassment, the lawsuit said. The student says he was pushed down the stairs and urinated on because of the way he dressed. He transferred out of Anoka Middle School for the Arts in April 2011.

• A 14-year-old gay student says he suffered harassment at three different schools in the district. The student repeatedly reported the incidents to school officials but the harassment continued, the lawsuit said. School officials eventually recommended to his parents that they transfer him to an alternative school. The student plans to begin high school in the Anoka-Hennepin district this fall.

• A 14-year-old bisexual student who will attend Champlin Park High School in the fall said she reported harassment against her to school officials at Fred Moore Middle School at least 30 different times to little or no effect, according to the lawsuit. The harassment led to mental health issues, and the student sought treatment this spring at a full-time outpatient program, the lawsuit said.

• A 14-year-old boy said he has been repeatedly harassed; he was perceived as gay by other students because his fathers are gay and because he participates in gymnastics. The student, who plans to attend Champlin Park High School in the fall, reported the harassment and physical abuse but claims school officials have not done enough to stop it.

The students are asking the court to order the Anoka-Hennepin district to stop enforcing the sexual orientation curriculum policy. They are also asking for unspecified monetary damages.

Olson, the school district spokeswoman, said district officials had investigated each case and concluded teachers responded appropriately in all cases. She noted that some incidents happen outside of school, making it more difficult for school officials to respond.

The district said the students who initiated the attacks were disciplined at the time, but that privacy laws prohibit victims and their families from being made aware of the discipline.