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Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district settles bullying lawsuits

Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district settles bullying lawsuits

COON RAPIDS, Minn. — The Anoka-Hennepin School District on Monday night voted to accept a settlement agreement with six former and current district students who had filed two lawsuits over a policy requiring staff to remain neutral on topics related to sexual orientation.

The school district also pledged to improve the treatment of LGBT students as part of the settlement that closes a long legal chapter in its struggles over bullying, sexual orientation and teen suicides, reported the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The 5-1 school board vote, which resolves both a federal civil rights investigation and a lawsuit filed last summer by six former and current students, was received with cheers and hugs among plaintiffs and their supporters. The suit had said the district did not adequately respond to persistent physical and verbal harassment based on real or perceived sexual orientation.

The settlement creates a five-year partnership between the school district and the federal departments of Justice and Education to help create programs and procedures to improve the school climate for all students.

The settlement requires the district to hire staff to improve the climate for LGBT students and more closely monitor and report bullying.

The district also must pay a lump sum of $270,000 to be divided among the student plaintiffs.

The settlement comes just weeks after the school board voted to replace its controversial “neutrality” policy on LGBT issues, which many dubbed a “gag rule,” and which was a target of the lawsuits.

The former policy required teachers and staff to “remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions.”

The two lawsuits alleged that the former policy contributed to a hostile environment in which LGBT students and those perceived as LGBT were subjected to anti-LGBT slurs and physical threats on a daily basis by their peers.

The neutrality policy was replaced last month by the “Respectful Learning Environment” policy, which now directs Anoka-Hennepin schools to provide “a safe and respectful learning environment for all students,” and directs staff to “affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.”

In the past three years, at least nine teenagers from within the Anoka-Hennepin district committed suicide, and many other students attempted to take their lives — some of the victims were gay, or perceived to be by their classmates, and many were reportedly bullied.

In a statement posted on the school district’s website last month, Superintendent Dennis Carlson said, “There can be no doubt that in many situations bullying is one of the contributing factors” to suicide, in sharp contrast to a December 2010 message by Carlson to district employees that “none of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying or harassment.”

Board member Kathy Tingelstad was the lone vote against Monday’s decision, and resigned in protest immediately following the vote.

Tingelstad, a former Republican state representative, said the settlement was a result of pressure from “out-of-state bullies” and would be costly to the cash-strapped district.

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