DOJ Files Civil Rights Lawsuit Against MN School District; Settlement Proposal With DOJ, Students Follows

Posted by Chris Geidner
March 5, 2012 10:00 PM |

Following an investigation that began in November 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice today filed a federal lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the Minnesota school district that has been the subject of significant public criticism for its treatment of LGBT students, alleging that the district violated students' constitutional rights, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Education Amendments of 1972.

In the DOJ complaint, obtained by Metro Weekly, DOJ lays out the findings of its investigation, which was conducted with the Department of Education and has led to a proposed settlement of the lawsuit and two ongoing lawsuits brought by students in the district. In October 2010, the Department of Education sent a letter to schools detailing their obligations under federal law to protect LGBT students from sexual harassment and gender-based harassment resulting from sex stereotypes.

perez.jpgNoting specific examples of discriminatory treatment faced by 10 students in the district, DOJ's investigation, according to today's filing, concluded, "The school and District officials with authority to address the sex-based harassment knew or should have known about the harassment [the students] experienced.

"Often, District personnel ignored these sex-based harassment allegations," DOJ lawyers wrote in the complaint, which was signed by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, the head of DOJ's Civil Rights Division. "In those instances when the District did respond to reports of sex-based harassment, the District's response improperly placed the burden of stopping the harassment on the student being harassed. ... The District knew its responses to sex-based harassment were inadequate because the harassment continued and in certain instances escalated.

"In sum, students in the District experienced and reported verbal and physical sex-based harassment because of their gender nonconformity. ... Based on this evidence, a hostile environment based on sex exists in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the District knew or should have known about the hostile environment, and the District has failed to address it," the complaint stated.

To end the lawsuits, the Anoka-Hennepin School District has agreed to take significant action to prevent harassment of students who are or are perceived to be LGBT or gender non-conforming, as well as those who have friends or parents who are LGBT, under the terms of a proposed court agreement announced tonight by DOJ and the plaintiffs of the two additional lawsuits that were previously filed against the district by students.

The agreement reached by six students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District who had filed two federal lawsuits accusing the district of gender-based and sexual orientation-based harrassment, along with DOJ and the school district, would put in place a federal government-supervised five-year consent decree requiring the district to take the actions to improve the atmosphere for the students and others like them.

Dylon Frei, one of the plaintiff students in the case, said in a news release issued by his lawyers tonight: "No one should have to go through the kind of harassment that I did. I am happy this agreement includes real changes that will make our schools safer and more welcoming for other kids."

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and attorneys from the law firms of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, and Culberth & Lienemann LLP represented the plaintiffs, including Frei, in the case.

Perez, the lawyer in charge of the DOJ Civil Rights Division, said in a release issued tonight by DOJ, "Harassment by or against students in schools is unacceptable, and not a 'rite of passage' to be endured by anyone. Parents are entitled to know that their children will be safe in school every day."

Thumbnail image for Screen shot 2012-03-05 at 8.53.29 PM.pngHe continued by praising the district -- which recently was profiled in a critical Rolling Stone article titled, "One Town's War on Gay Teens" -- saying, "We commend the Anoka-Hennepin School District for its willingness to tackle sex-based harassment and for working collaboratively with the federal government to address concerns across the district. We hope the district will become a model for schools nationwide by providing a safe and nurturing learning environment for all students free from bullying and harassment."

Sam Wolfe, an attorney for the SPLC's LGBT Project, pointed out the district's past while remaining hopeful about today's proposed agreement in his statement, saying, "This historic agreement marks a fresh start for the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Unfortunately, this district had become notorious for anti-LGBT hostility and discrimination. This consent decree sets the stage for Anoka-Hennepin to become a model for other school districts to follow in creating more respectful learning environments for all students in a thoughtful, systemic, and proactive way."

According to a news release from DOJ, it had "received a complaint [in November 2010] alleging that students in the school district were being harassed by other students because they didn't dress or act in ways that conform to gender stereotypes."

The release continues: "The Departments of Justice and Education conducted an extensive investigation into sex-based harassment in the district's middle and high schools. Many students reported that the unsafe and unwelcoming school climate inhibited their ability to learn. The parties worked collaboratively to draft a consent decree addressing and resolving the allegations in the complaints."

NCLR's legal director, Shannon Minter, pointed to the broader implications of the agreement: "This is an important step toward making LGBT and gender non-conforming students feel safe and welcome in district schools. The district has committed to a detailed long-term plan to prevent and address harassment, as well as ongoing review of its implementation of the plan by federal agencies."

The DOJ complaint, in addition to detailing the findings of the DOJ and Education Department investigations, procedurally enables DOJ to be a party to the proposed consent decree.

According to the release from the plaintiffs' groups, under the terms of the consent decree the district is required to:

  • Retain the Great Lakes Equity Center, an equity assistance center based at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis to provide a comprehensive, systemic review and recommend revisions to district policies and practices related to sex and sexual-orientation related harassment.
  • Fully investigate reports of harassment; escalate remedial efforts through additional measures when students are harassed on a repeated basis; and mitigate the effects of harassment that occurs.
  • Take proactive measures to address the hostile environment.
  • Develop procedures for parental notification while maintaining sensitivity to a student's right of privacy relating to their real or perceived orientation or gender identity.
  • Hire a district-level, harassment-prevention official who will help lead the district's efforts to "eliminate and prevent future instances of harassment in its education programs and activities."  This official will be referred to as a Title IX/Equity Coordinator who will ensure the district complies with its legal obligations to protect students from harassment; implement district policies and procedures relating to sex and sexual-orientation based harassment; monitor all complaints of such discrimination and harassment; identify trends or common areas of concern related to compliance; and coordinate between and among school and district staff, students, and parents related to addressing and preventing harassment.
  • Work with the Equity Center, Title IX /Equity Coordinator to develop improved and effective trainings, consistent with best practices, on harassment for all students and employees who interact with students.
  • Ensure that a counselor or other qualified mental health professional to be available during school hours for students in need.
  • Hire a mental health consultant to review and assess current practices in the district relating to assisting students who are subject to harassment.
  • Strengthen its annual anti-bullying survey.
  • Enhance a recently formed harassment-prevention task force to advise the district regarding how to best foster a positive educational climate. 
  • Work with the Equity Center to identify hot spots in district schools where harassment is most problematic, including outdoor locations and on school buses, and work with the equity consultant to develop corrective actions.

READ the DOJ complaint: Complaint in Intervention.pdf

READ the proposed consent decree: 2012.03.05. Consent Decree.pdf

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