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National Center for Lesbian Right's Attorney Celeste Culberth discusses the consent decree at a
press conference Tuesday. (Faegre Baker Daniels LLP/NCLR)
A major battle was won this week in the war on school bullying.

The 38,000-student Anoka-Hennepin school district outside Minneapolis, Minnesota settled a pending civil rights lawsuit filed last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) on behalf of students that alleged the school district failed to adequately provide for their safety and address their educational needs. Singled out was the district's long standing gag order on staff, officially known as the "Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy." Unofficially known as the "No Homo Promo" policy, it prohibited staffers from offering support to LGBT students or acknowledge the existence of LGBT people.

SPLC's lead attorney Sam Wolfe and NCLR's
Ilona Turner, July 2011. (SPLC)
The lawsuit asserted that the district's gag policy and its failure to protect these students violated the students' rights under the U.S. Constitution, Title IX and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. At the time, SPLC's lead attorney on the case Sam Wolfe said:
“We are disappointed that the district fails to see the serious harm this policy is causing its students. School and district officials who are entrusted with the safety and education of all students continue to ignore, minimize, dismiss and even blame victims for the abusive behavior of other students.”
The district became even more notorious when on July 25, 2011, when Mother Jones reported the district had had 10 suicides in two years, and tied the policy to the district's congressional representative, notoriously anti-gay Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Directives from the school district to remain "neutral" during disputes were likewise, wholly inadequate, says Anoka High School teacher Mary Jo Merrick-Lockett. Quoted in Rolling Stone on the effect of the policy, "What is 'neutral'? Teachers are constantly asking, 'Do you think I could get in trouble for this? Could I get fired for that?' So a lot of teachers sidestep it. They don't want to deal with district backlash."

Anoka Middle School Arts teacher Jefferson Fietek said of the policy's effect on kids, "They're made to feel ashamed of who they are. They're bullied. And there's no one to stand up for them, because teachers are afraid of being fired."

"Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy" is now dead. On Monday the parties agreed to a consent decree that would end that policy and implement changes to better address and protect LGBT and all students.

(Continue reading below the fold)

From NCLR's press release:

The primary purpose of the consent decree is to address and prevent sex-based and sexual-orientation-based harassment. Under the terms of the consent decree, the district is required to:
  • Retain the Great Lakes Equity Center, an equity assistance center based at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis to provide a comprehensive, systemic review and recommend revisions to district policies and practices related to sex and sexual-orientation related harassment.
  • Fully investigate reports of harassment; escalate remedial efforts through additional measures when students are harassed on a repeated basis; and mitigate the effects of harassment that occurs.
  • Take proactive measures to address the hostile environment.
  • Develop procedures for parental notification while maintaining sensitivity to a student’s right of privacy relating to their real or perceived orientation or gender identity.
  • Hire a district-level, harassment-prevention official who will help lead the district’s efforts to “eliminate and prevent future instances of harassment in its education programs and activities.”  This official will be referred to as a Title IX/Equity Coordinator who will ensure the district complies with its legal obligations to protect students from harassment; implement district policies and procedures relating to sex and sexual-orientation based harassment; monitor all complaints of such discrimination and harassment; identify trends or common areas of concern related to compliance; and coordinate between and among school and district staff, students, and parents related to addressing and preventing harassment.
  • Work with the Equity Center, Title IX /Equity Coordinator to develop improved and effective trainings, consistent with best practices, on harassment for all students and employees who interact with students.
  • Ensure that a counselor or other qualified mental health professional to be available during school hours for students in need.
  • Hire a mental health consultant to review and assess current practices in the district relating to assisting students who are subject to harassment.
  • Strengthen its annual anti-bullying survey.
  • Enhance a recently formed harassment-prevention task force to advise the district regarding how to best foster a positive educational climate.
  • Work with the Equity Center to identify hot spots in district schools where harassment is most problematic, including outdoor locations and on school buses, and work with the equity consultant to develop corrective actions.
The district also agreed to a lump sum payment of $275,000. Plaintiffs however are most excited about the opportunity for change. At the press conference, student plaintiff Kyle Rooker, 15, described being targeted for his style of dress, hiding under the seat of the school bus to avoid going into school, being shoved and at one point urinated on in a bathroom. He said, “I’m glad that kids coming up behind me won’t have to suffer the way I did."

The decree was approved by the Anoka-Hennipen school board on Monday night. The only opposing board member, Kathy Tingelstad, resigned her position in protest. The agreement was signed by the presiding judge on Tuesday.

A real tipping point in this battle may well have come from the Obama administration. The Department of Justice, working in concert with the Department of Education, opened an investigation into the district's practices just about the time of the lawsuit. They told CNN, "The Department is committed to investigating allegations to determine whether there are violations of federal civil rights laws and will use the enforcement tools at our disposal to protect the safety of students."

The district had been on the administration's radar for some time. In October 2010, Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali sent a letter to the district reminding them of their obligations:

"A lot of bullying experienced by LGBT students is accompanied by or in the form of sexual harassment or gender-based harassment because students are perceived as not conforming to traditional gender roles," she said. "We want to be sure that that kind of harassment and discrimination can very much be a violation of Title IX and federal civil rights laws."
The area is heavy with Christian fundamentalists (you know, the same ones who just keep sending Michele Bachmann back to Congress). And while they may be able to outmaneuver local activists in the politics of school board elections and the local conversation, the executive branch stepping in may be a metaphoric equivalent of Anoka-Hennepin being called into the principal's office.

The district's notoriety has been snowballing. In Februray, Rolling Stone published a long exposé titled "One Town's War on Gay Teens." Like Mother Jones, they tied the school's policies to the local religious right influence in politics. The same politics Rep. Bachmann plays to so effectively in what Rolling Stone described as her "Holy War."

In response, the district still sounded defiant, and issued a statement (PDF) on Feb. 6 calling the Rolling Stone article "a grossly distorted portrayal of the Anoka-­Hennepin School District," and insisting, "We take action when we get reports of bullying or students using harassing language and there are consequences, up to and including expulsion."

But the joint DOE/DOJ investigation disagreed. Metro Weekly reported their conclusion on Monday:

Noting specific examples of discriminatory treatment faced by 10 students in the district, DOJ's investigation, according to today's 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 Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, the head of DOJ's Civil Rights Division. "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.

Student plaintiff Kyle Rooker
(Faegre Baker Daniels LLP/NCLR)
Zach Ford, writing for Think Progress, summarized the district's failings on Monday. He broke them down into nine broad categories:
  • blame the victim
  • treat the symptoms
  • make budgetary excuses
  • compromise victim’s education
  • shrug it off
  • punish the victim
  • burden the victim
  • plead ignorance
  • abandon the victim.

The common theme being that bullied children became the focus of the administration action, not the actual instigators themselves.

The filing referenced is perhaps the biggest favor the administration delivered to the kids in this battle. Concurrent with its filing of the proposed consent decree, the DOJ sought to intervene in the suit, joining the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights as a plaintiff.

Part of the impetus for this move is that the DOJ will become a party to the suit, and as such, will not only oversee Anoka-Hennepin's transition to the new policy, but also be empowered to petition the court for enforcement of the decree should the district fail to comply with the terms.

The realpolitik effect is the DOJ had clearly arrived at the conclusion the plaintiffs' claims had merit, and as such, the district  faced the prospect of not only fighting SPLC, NCLR and the students in federal court, but the Department of Justice and Department of Education as well. It's little wonder they settled quickly.

Anoka-Hennepin backing down and agreeing to this consent decree is a huge win for those seeking to solve the problem of kids being bullied, particularly around the issues related to sexual orientation and gender expression.

Abbe Land, executive director and CEO of The Trevor Project, an organization that runs a crisis hotline specifically for LGBTQ teens, heralded this settlement as "A Sea Change for School Safety Nationwide."

This week marks a historic paradigm shift in the way the federal government interacts with communities. The slow behemoth of federal justice moved at the breakneck pace of 16 months to create a blueprint for school safety that can be implemented nationwide, all in the interest of keeping children and youth safe, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.
How that change manifests itself remains to be seen. The settlement's policy directive seems to be fundamentally irreconcilable with the state of Tennessee's infamous movement to pass a "don't say gay" education bill. A "state's right" court battle over sovereignty of education policy could well be on the horizon between the DOE, DOJ and the state of Tennessee.

Land is echoing language used by assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division Thomas Perez. In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Perez was quoted in the Washington Blade and elsewhere as saying the consent decree "provides a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform."

Given the regressive atmosphere in red states like Tennessee, the question is begged, will the federal government take be taking more decisive legislative action anytime soon? Two federal bills are on the table to address this issue, the Safe Schools Improvement act (SSIA) and the Student Non-Discrimination act (SNDA).

Letter to administration re: SNDA (Metro Weekly)
The latter got a bump from this development with a renewed push on Thursday calling on the administration to get behind Rep. Jared Polis' bill, saying the move would be "a clarion call for equality."
70 groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers to the NAACP -- along with LGBT advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign; National Gay & Lesbian Task Force; Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network; Trevor Project -- urged the Obama administration to endorse the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA).

Perez, asked about this bill, said it would "certainly be helpful," but the administration is still officially non-committal on it. He added, "We have had conversations with various stakeholders on the Hill and spoken about that, and are carefully reviewing that particular proposal," which unfortunately has been their talking point for several years now.

Not everyone is happy about the settlement though. Laurie Thompson, spokeswoman for the Parents Action League, is quoted in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune as calling the settlement a "travesty."

The lawsuit, she said in an e-mail, was not about bullying but was meant to "abolish conservative moral beliefs about homosexuality. Making schools safe for 'gay' kids means indoctrinating impressionable, young minds with homosexual propaganda."
Among the demands the Parent's Action League website is making of the school district:
"Provide pro-family, ex-homosexual and ex-transgender videos to secondary media centers"
I guess it's okay to say gay in school in the context of "ex-gay." I am sure Rep. Bachmann can get them a discount on their pray the gay away propaganda.

NY Times
There may be no more polarizing or incendiary issue in public policy than the question of what to do about gay kids, who are increasingly coming out younger and younger, as the New York Times reported in Sept. 2009. With role models on youth-targeted shows like MTV's Real World, Fox's Glee and Nickelodeon network's Degrassi High, increasingly kids feel confident to be more open and honest about themselves at ever younger ages. But can the grown-ups handle it?

It is important to realize this is but one battle in an ongoing war. These battles will continue to be waged locally, so long as there are ignorant and hateful people who believe their religious beliefs are a sound foundation for making public policy. Supporters of the Anoka-Hennepin's anti-gay policy allege the existence of Gay Straight Alliance clubs will infect your children with HIV. Barb Anderson, affiliated with the Minnesota Family Council (and the hate group Family Research Council), led the crusade to support the "No Homo Promo" policy in Anoka-Hennepin and is quoted in Rolling Stone:

"Open your eyes, people," Anderson recently wrote to the local newspaper. "What if a 15-year-old is seduced into homosexual behavior and then contracts AIDS?" Her agenda mimics that of Focus on the Family, the national evangelical Christian organization founded by James Dobson; Family Councils, though technically independent of Focus on the Family, work on the state level to accomplish Focus' core goals, including promoting prayer in public spaces, "defending marriage" by lobbying for anti-gay legislation, and fighting gay tolerance in public schools under the guise of preserving parental authority – reasoning that government-mandated acceptance of gays undermines the traditional values taught in Christian homes.
Tee shirt available at Zazzle.
So many logical fallacies: that your children will not turn out gay if you can just isolate them from other gay people, that HIV can only be avoided by creating environments where kids are celibate and isolated, that these clubs exist only for the purposes of facilitating sexual contact between minors (would one say the same of a bible study or a chess club?).

As repugnant and as counter-productive to children's health and education as Anoka-Hennepin failed policy was, Tennessee is still threatening to implement it state-wide as their "Don't say gay" policy has yet to be defeated and enjoyed a resurgent push just this week. News also comes out of Utah that both state houses have passed a similar bill that also bans discussion of contraception. This legislation flew completely under the mainstream radar and all that remains is the governor's signature for this to become law. Democrats and PTA leaders have called on the governor to veto this attempt legislate morality.

As the LGBT movement wins large battles in blue states and on the federal level, the right wing is having a big gay panic attack.

Demonizing gays has been a very profitable business model for many decades. Consider Focus on The Family—just one of 18 antigay hate groups listed on South Poverty Law Center's last list—has a reported operating budget of $130M. The bulk of their work is devoted to opposing LGBT progress and abortion rights. Imagine the financial disaster if fear mongering the gay loses its viability as a fundraising appeal.

In response, the right wing is busy brainstorming new ways to keep the culture wars alive.

This includes, but is certainly not limited to:

Justin Aaberg a student in Anoka-Hennepin killed himself on July 9th, 2010 after years of torment.
His mother, Tammy Aaberg has become a force for change. (Tammy Aaberg)  
But the worst is when they have turned their focus to education. School boards are easily swung in local elections and doing so is a very carefully thought out and well-known tactic of the religious right and conservatives. They want to get them young and insure they are "indoctrinated" properly by controlling the conversation.

Tasking school boards and state legislatures to create discriminatory educational policies that single out LGBTQ children is truly the lowest, most despicable and most dangerous form of demagogue politics being practiced in the country. They wish to create public policy around what are superstitions, and beliefs, not sound science. Their beliefs fly against all the judgement of best minds of the medical, psychological, sociological and educational advocates and place these kids at enormous risk, quite literally taking lives.

When Michelle Johnson was interviewed by Rolling Stone about her expriences with Anoka-Hennepin school district, she said:

"Samantha got caught up in a political battle that I didn't know about. And you know whose fault it is? The people who make their living off of saying they're going to take care of our kids."
Her daughter Samantha shot herself in the head in the family bathtub in Nov. 2009.

Samantha Johnson was just 13 years old.

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