Anoka-Hennepin faces new lawsuit over treatment of gay students

Bullying pledge
Students walk by a poster displaying a bully-free pledge at the Fred Moore campus of Anoka Middle School for the Arts in Anoka, Minn. Friday, June 3, 2011. The pledge, which all students were asked to voluntarily sign, was started at the school in January, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The Anoka-Hennepin School District is facing a new lawsuit over its alleged treatment of gay and lesbian students.

The lawsuit, filed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), says school officials failed to intervene to help a 15-year-old student at Jackson Middle School who was being harassed and physically assaulted by fellow students because of her sexual orientation and perceived gender nonconformity.

Executive director Kate Kendell said the district's actions violated the student's rights under the U.S. Constitution, Title IX and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The center is also representing five other students in a similar suit and will ask to have the two cases consolidated.

"The facts are chillingly similar and also heartbreaking," she said. "These are students who were called all sorts of names (and) faced a daily barrage of anti-gay slurs directed at them."

The lawsuit seeks punitive damages and requirements that the district create policies and trainings to prevent harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.

The NCLR and the Southern Poverty Law Center have also requested the district change its sexual orientation curriculum policy, which says that sexual orientation issues aren't part of the regular curriculum. The document instructs teachers to remain neutral if the subject comes up in class.

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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.

A spokesperson for the Anoka-Hennepin School District did not respond to requests for comment.

After the initial lawsuit was filed in July, district spokeswoman Mary Olson told MPR News that officials stood by the policy and were disappointed the groups decided to go ahead with the lawsuit. She said the district would have preferred to work with them to improve teacher training and student awareness of bullying.

The latest lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal district court in Minneapolis, alleges that 15-year-old student, who was enrolled in Jackson Middle School for the 2010-2011 school year, was subjected to anti-gay slurs. It says the girl was punched in the stomach by a male student who had previously called the student a "he/she" and taunted inside the school's locker room.

The lawsuit says the girl, whose name has not been released, complained about the harassment many times to teachers and administrators at Jackson Middle School, but that school officials responded by punishing her.

School officials, the lawsuit claims, forced the girl to change into her gym clothes by herself and walk down the hallways at different times than other students. As the result, the suit alleges, the girl refused to change into her gym clothes and started skipping classes to avoid harassment. She failed the gym class and the lawsuit alleges her other grades dropped as well.

In April, school officials cut the student's class schedule to a half day, the lawsuit says, and the student frequently skipped class to avoid harassment.

The girl has been assigned to Champlin Park High School this fall, but her mother may ask for a transfer to the Osseo Area School District, the lawsuit said. The girl previously attended Osseo district schools, and the lawsuit says she never experienced any harassment there.