Student harassed by teachers for perceived homosexuality speaks out

After teachers repeatedly taunted a high school junior in the Anoka-Hennepin School District about his perceived sexuality, the student was forced to move to a school 25 miles away to escape the teacher's torment and the resulting harassment from fellow students.

Now the district is paying his family a $25,000 settlement in the case and the student, Alex Merritt, is speaking out in hopes of helping others come forward about harassment in the classroom.

Merritt told the Star Tribune that the settlement is just a tiny consolation that "doesn't fix a broken heart" or "bring back all my friends."

And what has the district done to try and stop this from happening again? Not a whole lot.

The high school junior wrote a report on Ben Franklin during the 2007-2007 school year. His teacher, Diane Cleveland, told the entire class that the student had a "thing for older men." Cleveland also told the class the boy's "fence swings both ways," according to the Star Tribune report on the Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigation.

When the student wrote a report on Abraham Lincoln, teacher Walter Filson said, "Since you like your men older ..." Filson also told some students that the boy "enjoys wearing women's clothes."

Cleveland also asked him if he wanted a gay student to come to the bathroom with him and they could tap feet under the stalls. Filson even agreed and laughed along when a student compared Merritt to a person they discussed in class that had molested deer.

The latest Strib report has more details on the harassment:

Merritt said he had Cleveland's class before lunch, and Filson's class afterwards. If Cleveland made fun of him for something, he said, she told Filson about it at lunch. Merritt would be teased for the same thing in a new class after lunch.

According to the investigation, Cleveland also covered the screen during a bathing suit scene in a movie the class was watching, and said "It's OK if [Alex] watches this because he isn't into that sort of thing anyway ... maybe if it was a guy."

Merritt says the harassment from the teachers meant endless threats and taunting from classmates too. He said he received death threats and notes say "Shut up, you queer" and "I'm going to kill you, you queer."

And the school district doesn't seem to be moving to ensure this doesn't happen again. OutFront Minnesota, a local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) advocacy group, offered to train staff in the districts new sexual orientation policy, but the district refused. As late as February, staff were told to refrain from calling homosexuality a "normal, valid lifestyle" in health classes.

"What we've tried to do is create policy around a neutral stance, focusing on respect, appreciation of diversity, responsibility, integrity and compassion," district associate superintendent Michelle Langenfeld told the Strib. She said all staff members go through harassment training during the hiring process and those policies are reviewed every year.

And as for the teachers? They weren't fired. Cleveland was disciplined with a two-day unpaid suspension and briefly reassigned to creating a social studies curriculum reflecting equality in the classroom. She only did one day of the assignment and then called in sick the rest of the week.

No word on disciplinary action against Filson.

Merrit says the teacher's apologies earlier this year weren't enough. "The teachers should be kicked out," he said.

Read the full Strib report here.

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