Five students suing Anoka-Hennepin schools over gay bullying

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights are suing the Anoka-Hennepin County School District on behalf of five current and former students, claiming that the district's hands-off policy on sexual orientation has allowed years of bullying for gay students.

The suit, which comes on the heels of the Department of Justice announcing an investigation into the same issue, is seeking to change the district policy that discourages discussion of sexual orientation in classrooms, and maintains an officially "neutral" viewpoint of homosexuality.

The district responded with an offer for increased teacher training, but the school district communications director Mary Olson said it was also preparing to defend itself in court.

"Well, if we're sued," she said, "I guess we have to."

The complaint alleges that district students have been picked-on, verbally assaulted and worse, including claims of "being urinated on, being stabbed in the neck with a pencil, being choked, being pushed into walls, being shoved forcefully into lockers, having objects thrown at them in class, and having books knocked out of their hands."

The district responded to the lawsuit through a statement released yesterday:

The Anoka-Hennepin School District is reviewing the complaint initiated today by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). The district takes strong exception to the outrageous media statement the district is not concerned about the safety of its students.

Anoka-Hennepin awaits a response from the SLPC and NCLR on its invitation to help the district train and prepare for the upcoming school year. Anoka-Hennepin has been recognized as a pro-active leader in the state of Minnesota on bullying prevention. "We are always willing to improve upon our practice as it relates to the safety of students," said Superintendent Dennis Carlson.

SPLC's Sam Wolfe, the lead attorney bringing the suit, told City Pages the "invitation to help the district train and prepare for the upcoming school year" isn't enough to stop the suit.

"We don't see it as a serious offer at this point," Wolfe said. "As long as the policy is in place, this type of offer is not meaningful."

The policy that the suit seeks to abolish governs the discussion of homosexuality in public school classrooms.

"Teaching about sexual orientation," the policy reads, "is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations."

Wolfe says that policy, which has been in place since 2009, replaced an even stronger policy that dated back to the mid-1990s, which stated that teachers should not encourage homosexuality.

The Department of Justice's investigation is looking into the suicides of four students in the district which are blamed on the students' issues with their sexuality, including two cases where bullying may directly have led to suicide.

The civil complaint against the district is demanding that the district abandon its policy altogether. Wolfe said the complainants would consider a revision of the policy, but that probably wouldn't be sufficient to settle the suit.

"I doubt there's any way to repair this policy," Wolfe said. "It just needs to go."

Along with the policy change, the five students who are bringing the suit are seeking monetary compensation for their suffering. Wolfe said in similar cases with only one or two students involved, juries had awarded as much as $1 million to gay students.

The students and their families will consider a settlement offer, Wolfe says, but SPLC is readying itself for the courtroom.

"The ball is really in their court now," Wolfe said. "We're willing to litigate this all the way through trial."

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