Anoka-Hennepin settles lawsuit with bullied students

Last night, the Anoka-Hennepin school district settled the lawsuit brought against it by six students who say they were bullied for being gay. The settlement requires that the district implement a raft of anti-harassment policies, which will stay in place for five years.

"Nothing like this has been done before," says attorney Zack Stephenson, whose firm, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, sued on behalf of the students. "This will be a model across the country."

Not only were the terms of the settlement revealed, but the final investigation report from the U.S. departments of Justice and Education was released.

"A hostile environment exists in the District," the report concludes. "The District's existing
policies and procedures have contributed to the hostile environment."

In that sentence, the DOJ agreed with the crux of the lawsuit -- that the neutrality policy and the policies that preceded contributed to harassment of gay kids. The report, based on an investigation of the district that began in November 2010, goes on to enumerate the evidence of bullying in the cases of 10 current and former students, identified only as "students A-J."

It seems clear that "Student I" is Justin Aaberg, a 15 year old who committed suicide in 2010. The report is the first official acknowledgment that Aaberg was bullied and that his school counselor knew about it.

"The District knew or should have known that the measures it took to address the
harassment were inadequate because the harassment continued," the report concludes. "Student I took his own life."

"That actually means a lot that they have him included in there," says Tammy Aaberg, Justin's mother.

The investigation concluded that all ten students were targeted based on their sexuality, and that the district ignored harassment allegations. In several cases, the report said the district acted improperly by transferring bullied students to other classes, rather than having the bullies moved. In Student A's case, the DOJ found that he had his "feminine clothing" taken away by teachers, and he was told that "boys don't do that" when he sang.

"District students have faced death threats and other threats to their physical safety because of their gender nonconformity," the DOJ concludes. "Based on this evidence, a hostile environment based on sex exists in the Anoka-Hennepin School District."

Read the entire Department of Justice report here.

Last night, the Anoka-Hennepin school board met to approve the agreement hammered out between the district, the federal government, and the six students named in the lawsuit. Only one of the six school board members, Kathy Tingelstad, voted against the agreement, then announced her resignation at the press conference immediately following. In her remarks, she compared her departure to someone being bullied.

The agreement stipulates that the students are paid $270,000. Over the next five years, several accountability measures will go into effect in the district, including the hiring of harassment and mental health experts, and a comprehensive system for investigating and monitoring harassment allegations. Compliance and progress will be monitored by the federal government. Should the district fall short of their agreement, the deal or "consent decree" will be null, and a judge could find the district in contempt of court.

Read the entire decree here.

"The objective here was to improve the district, to make real change. Not to get revenge," says Stephenson. "There's going to be real change in the Anoka-Hennepin district."

Stephenson is a former district student himself, and a classmate of Erik Turbenson, who was tormented for being gay and eventually committed suicide in 2001. City Pages documented Turbenson's story upon the 10th anniversary of his death. Stephenson says he saw firsthand through Turbenson what the students he represented had gone through.

"It's been going on for a long time, since I was in high school there," he says. "It's nice to see some progress being made on this after all these years."

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