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Treatment of LGBT Students at Minnesota School District Under Intense Scrutiny

Last week, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center in conjunction with the Minneapolis law firm Faegre & Benson filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota on July 21, 2011 against the Anoka-Hennepin School District on behalf of five students who have faced severe anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.

The federal lawsuit challenges the pervasive anti-LGBT harassment in schools within the District as well as the District’s “gag policy” that prevents teachers from discussing issues related to LGBT students.  The private lawsuit asserts that the District’s gag policy, in addition to the District’s failure to protect its students from harassment and discrimination, violates the student’s rights under the United States Constitution, Title IX, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The lawsuit asserts that the gag policy limits the effective response that teachers can provide when they witness anti-LGBT harassment taking place, and as a result, LGBT students suffer in violation of their civil rights. Concurrently, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) in conjunction with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced on April 25, 2011 that they are investigating “incidents involving harassment and bullying” in the Anoka-Hennepin School District following allegations of harassment and discrimination in the District based on sex, including peer-on-peer harassment based on non-conforming gender stereotypes. 

The federal investigation by the DOJ and OCR will attempt to determine whether there are ongoing violations of federal civil rights law. Both the private litigation and the federal investigation come on the heels of seven student suicides in the District over the last two years, some of which were precipitated by anti-LGBT harassment and discrimination. It is alleged that students in the District who are LGBT, or are perceived as LGBT, are harassed mercilessly until they drop out, melt down or lash back.

One 14-year old student asserted at a press conference discussing the private lawsuit that the harassment and bullying got so bad that every day his bus got to school he thought about hiding under the seats so he wouldn’t have to go into school and be called names or pushed around. Other students assert in the lawsuit that they face daily verbal and physical harassment which went unaddressed by school officials.

While many of these abuses occurred in front of teachers or were reported to school officials, it is alleged that school personnel rarely took sufficient steps to stop the abuse. The school’s gag policy, officially known as the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, prohibits staff from offering support to LGBT students or acknowledging the existence of LGBT people.  This policy has undoubtedly played a significant role in encouraging the hostile anti-LGBT climate in the District and is the focal point of both the private litigation and the federal investigation.

In response to both the private litigation and the government investigation, the District has continually denied any connection between the bullying and the suicides and defends its gag policy by arguing that it simply prevents teachers from injecting their personal beliefs on homosexuality into the classroom and does not prohibit discussion about LGBT issues.

Furthermore, the District argues that students would be better served if energy and resources went into working together to develop materials that directly support students rather than focusing on litigation. However, after several student suicides and years of reports of discrimination and harassment, hopefully both the private lawsuit and the government investigation will prompt the District to change its policies and work to foster an inclusive and supportive environment for all its students.

Zack Launer, Staff Attorney, contributed to this post.

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