School environment improved before lawsuits settled, say students, teachers

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

Officials in the Anoka-Hennepin School District are promising safer schools now that lawsuits over bullying have been settled.

The agreement was approved by the school board Monday evening and includes a plan to work with the federal government to develop an anti-bullying campaign over the next five years.

Some students and school staff said they began to see improvements in the district in the months before the agreement was reached.

Dylon Frei is relieved the lawsuits are finally settled. Frei, 15, a freshman at Anoka High School, is one of six students who sued the district, saying its policies did not protect them from bullying.

Frei is gay and was called names and shoved around the halls during middle school.

But he said things got better during his last few months in high school, as the district worked to settle the lawsuits.

"Random kids in the hallway would come up to me and say 'I got your back, don't worry about it,' " Feri said. "I've never had that before so that made me cry. I finally have the support I've needed my whole life and so happy about it."

Anoka-Hennepin School District
The Anoka-Hennepin School District has settled two lawsuits over a policy that critics claim didn't stop bullying of students who are gay or perceived to be gay.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

For Brittany Geldert, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, bullying sent her into depression. Geldert said she faced constant harassment, vicious rumors and name-calling that targeted her sexuality.

Geldert said she is still dealing with what she calls "rude people." She said she and her friends have noticed a change, especially among teachers, who are now more likely to ask her and other students how they are feeling. Teachers and staff also encourage them to report any bullying.

"Counselors are actually checking in more often," Geldert said. "There's acceptance and people taking time out of their grading to talk with students which a lot of us have been missing."

It is not coincidence that teachers and staff seem more concerned about bullying. They've been through repeated training in recent years while the district faced national scrutiny and eventually lawsuits over how it handled bullying.

Lynn Florman, who works with developmentally disabled students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, said the most recent training session, held in January, seemed to resound with teachers. Florman said teachers were given specific instructions on how to deal with bullying, which had not been something addressed in such detail before.

"Who do you go to? Who do you tell?" Florman said. "What kind of information do you have to collect to make sure that there is follow up so that it doesn't just end with you saying 'Nope, not appropriate.' "

District Prevention Coordinator Barry Scanlan oversees the safety of all Anoka-Hennepin students. Teachers tell Scanlan that more students are now taking a stand against bullying.

"Students are reporting bullying more often and talking about bullying in the hallways, on their own," Scanlan said. "They (teachers) overhear kids talking about all of these messages that they're getting."

Anoka-Hennepin students will hear many more messages about bullying in the future. The lawsuit settlement requires the district to embark on a five-year anti-bullying program that can be used as a national model. The district will hire new staff to track bullying and provide mental health care to students targeted by bullies.

The school district is now poised to build upon the anti-bullying efforts it has already started, said Julie Blaha. president of Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota, the local teachers' union.

"Then add in some of the resources that we'll have because of the settlement, that's where we can really build something important," Blaha said.

As its priority, Blaha said the school district should organize and better focus its anti-bullying efforts. She hopes by next year Anoka-Hennepin will have a policy that other school districts can emulate.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.