Anti-bullying policies take hold in Anoka-Hennepin

Published 10:41 am Monday, March 4, 2013

ANOKA — One year after Minnesota’s largest school district settled a lawsuit over bullying, those involved in the push for change say life is getting better there for gay and lesbian students.

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District after getting a call from Jackson Middle School teacher Ann Lindsey on Aug. 25, 2010. It was a month after a gay high schooler committed suicide after being bullied.

The atmosphere for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students was “toxic,” “dangerous” and “fearful” at the time, Lindsey recalled. But she said the mood is much brighter now, and anti-gay slurs aren’t heard as often.

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“It’s a little magical to think about how far we’ve come,” Lindsey said. “I’m thrilled to say students can walk through the halls and feel safe.”The lawsuit took the district to task for failing to stop what it called repeated anti-gay bullying endured by six students. It blamed a district neutrality policy that critics said silenced staff members, preventing them from taking effective action to stem the bullying of students who were gay or perceived to be gay.

Tuesday marks the anniversary of the settlement. After months of contentious hearings and debate, the school board adopted a consent decree outlining a host of tasks the district had to undertake.

“Has it gotten better for everyone yet?” asked Jefferson Fietek, an outspoken teacher in the district and advocate for LGBT students. “No. Is it starting to head in that direction? Yes. Is it where we’ve needed to go for a long time? Yes.”

Now that fewer eyes are watching the district’s every move, Superintendent Dennis Carlson said, staff members have started rolling out the measures promised in the consent decree.

The steps included hiring a Title IX coordinator to deepen the staff’s understanding of the federal law protecting sex- and gender-based expression. Most staff members now have been trained on their responsibility to report discrimination based on sexual orientation and on ways to intervene. There is also a comprehensive system in place to report and track bullying.

Attorney Sam Wolfe, who filed the lawsuit in 2011, said he’s impressed with the progress.

“I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but I can say I am personally unaware of any incident of anti-LGBT harassment at this point, and if there is one, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t dealt with in a really thoughtful and systematic way,” Wolfe said. “That is the night-and-day difference between when we started our investigation and now.”

Brittany “Lane” Geldert said the district is “more livable now.”

The Champlin Park High School sophomore, who identifies herself as bisexual, was one of the students represented in the lawsuit.

“It’s starting to change; not drastic, but it feels more like normal high school now,” she said.