Deal Reached After DOJ Joins Bullying Lawsuit

Five-year consent decree aims to change environment in Minnesota school district

”I made change for kids that aren’t strong enough to make change,” Dylon Frei, an out gay student in the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, told reporters on Tuesday morning, March 6. Frei made the comments at a news conference focused on an unprecedented settlement Frei and five other students reached with the district in a bullying lawsuit they filed in 2011.

The students in the district, which has been the subject of significant public criticism for its treatment of LGBT students, were joined in the effort by the Department of Justice, which had launched an investigation into the district’s treatment of students’ bullying complaints in November 2010.

Student plaintiff Kyle Rooker talks about being bullied and harassed in school over the years, and his hope for other students in the future. (or, simply, Student plaintiff Kyle Rooker)

Student plaintiff Kyle Rooker talks about being bullied and harassed in school over the years, and his hope for other students in the future. (or, simply, Student plaintiff Kyle Rooker)

(Photo by Faegre Baker Daniels)

”Bullying cannot be a right of passage in our nation’s schools,” Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, the head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, told reporters March 6 in a conference call to discuss DOJ’s involvement in the consent decree reached between the parties, the district and DOJ Monday.

DOJ, in anticipation of the settlement, filed a complaint on Monday intervening in the students’ lawsuits and alleging – as a result of its own investigation – 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 laid out the findings of its investigation, which was conducted with the Department of Education.

In October 2010, the Department of Education had 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. It was a month later that a complaint was filed with DOJ about the Anoka-Hennepin School District, claiming that it failed to protect students from such sex-based and gender-based harassment.

In the March 6 conference call, Department of Education Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali said the settlement shows, ”Harassment of students based on failure to conform to gender norms will not be tolerated.”

Noting specific examples of discriminatory treatment faced by 10 students in the district, DOJ’s investigation, according to their Monday 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 Perez. “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 that will settle the students’ lawsuits and DOJ’s intervening lawsuit.

The agreement 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.

Frei said in a news release issued by his lawyers on Monday night: “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 Monday night by DOJ, “Harassment by or against students in schools is unacceptable, [and] parents are entitled to know that their children will be safe in school every day.”

He 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 Monday’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.”