A Big Win

The landmark settlement in a Minnesota bullying case and how it could help gay students everywhere.

Anoka-Hennepin students got a settlement in their bullying suit against their school district

Until Tuesday, the Anoka-Hennepin school district, north of Minneapolis, was known for a virulent clash over the rights of bullied gay students. Now the district has agreed to change its approach to handling anti-gay harassment and to teaching students about gender and sexuality in the classroom. It’s a local shift that’s also about something bigger. The growing recognition that students should be protected from bullying is forcing schools and communities to make space for students to be themselves—whether they are gay or perceived as gay or just don’t act the way other people expect a boy or a girl to behave. The Anoka-Hennepin schools, like some other districts, are making that space in the face of heated opposition from local conservative Christians.

Here’s the history: In the last few years, LGBT and gender-bending students in the Anoka-Hennepin district have reported being mocked, urinated on, and physically harmed by their classmates, and nine students, four of whom identified as gay, took their own lives. In 2011, six students represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights sued the school district, which serves 39,000 students and is represented in Congress by Michele Bachmann. The students’ lawsuit described an “epidemic of anti-gay and gender-based harassment within District schools” that was “rooted in and encouraged by official District-wide policies singling out and denigrating LGBT people.” The Obama Justice Department investigated and found that sex-based harassment was creating a “hostile environment,” because the physical and verbal bullying was severe and pervasive.

At first, the school board stood by a curriculum policy passed in 2009, which on paper instructed teachers to “remain neutral” about sexual orientation and in practice operated as a gag order. Teachers were required to refrain from saying that being gay is not a choice, even if they were quoting the position of the American Psychological Association. When history teachers included gay rights in a unit about how the strategies of the black civil rights groups influenced subsequent movements, the district deleted the reference. For a staff diversity training session, the district rejected a book called How Homophobia Hurts Children   because it did not “include an opposing viewpoint.” The schools also scrubbed LBGT support services, like a gay and lesbian helpline, from the list of health resources given to students. And a conservative Christian parents’ group called the Parents Action League pushed for teaching gay students about “reparative therapy”—how to root out their homosexuality—by promoting groups that treat it as a sin against the will of God. In 2010 the head of the group told the Minnesota Independent that LGBT students had killed themselves not because of bullying, but because of “homosexual indoctrination” and their own “unhealthy lifestyle.” (The statewide sponsor of the Parents Action League is a group called the Minnesota Family Council; last spring, Bachmannn and Newt Gingrich were the headline speakers for an MFC fundraiser.)

Now, after months of negotiations with the plaintiffs’ lawyers and DoJ, the school district has folded. That’s not what the settlement announced Tuesday said: Anoka-Hennepin admitted no wrongdoing. But a month ago, the school board scrapped the curriculum policy about sexual orientation, replacing it with a new one that affirms the “dignity and worth of all students,” regardless of a host of traits including race, religion, sex/gender, and sexual orientation. The district also agreed to take steps like conducting surveys about the rate of bullying, creating an anti-bullying committee of students, parents, and teachers, and training peer leaders. Anoka-Hennepin promised to hire a coordinator to make sure all of this actually happens and a mental health consultant to review its approach to helping the targets of harassment. DoJ will monitor the schools for five years, and the district estimates it will spend about $500,000 on the measures it will take. The students who sued will split a settlement of $270,000.

Gay students have sued their schools and won before. But the national interest in the Anoka-Hennepin suit—see articles in Mother Jones, the New York Times, and Rolling Stone—makes this settlement especially important. There is no question that the government and (implicitly) the courts are forcing local schools to put the safety and well-being of LGBT students before the conservative Christian values of some people in their communities. This is a shift from the Bush years, when the Justice Department stayed away from gay-bullying lawsuits.

Locally, this week’s settlement has already prompted a backlash. A spokeswoman for the Parents Action League told the Minnesota Star Tribune that the settlement was a “travesty,” writing in an email that “Making schools safe for ‘gay’ kids means indoctrinating impressionable, young minds with homosexual propaganda.”

It’s increasingly clear, however, that the Parents Action League doesn’t speak for the mainstream, even in Anoka-Hennepin. School Superintendent Dennis Carlson, who’d previously stood behind the 2009 curriculum policy and angrily denied that the district had any duty to its LGBT students, changed his tone and his words this week. “Our gay students deserve to feel safe and be safe, just like everyone else in our public schools,” Carlson said.

A few weeks ago, Carlson also publically recognized that gay students are especially vulnerable to bullying. This is a fact backed up by all kinds of research: For gay students, there is an especially strong link between bullying, depression, and the potential for suicide. That means there’s a powerful public-health rationale for the kind of measures Anoka-Hennepin has agreed to take. In the end, the fury of the Parents Action League sounds more like a last gasp than a coherent argument.

At the press conference announcing the settlement Tuesday, a group of students and parents got up on stage and talked about what they’d gone through in the past, and why the present already felt different. “I got mentally and physically abused because of the way I am. Kids thought OK, he doesn’t play football, that’s weird,” plaintiff Dylon Frei said. Now, he continued, “I haven’t been bullied in a month and a half and that has never happened before. I’ve already seen change and I want these kids to know in the future they’re going to be safe and they’re going to have a great time in high school and I’m here for them if they need anything.”