Equality Matters

Alleged Bullying Of Minnesota LGBT Students Sparks Civil Suit, Federal Investigation

July 21, 2011 4:56 pm ET - by Matt Gertz

Yesterday CNN reported that the federal authorities are investigating a series of alleged anti-gay "incidents involving harassment and bullying" in Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District. Today two civil rights advocacy organizations announced that they are suing the district on behalf of five students "who have faced severe anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in school."

Since 2009, seven district students have committed suicide. Their parents and friends reportedly "say four of those students were either gay, perceived to be gay or questioning their sexuality, and they say that at least two of them were bullied over their sexuality."

In a May letter to the district's superintendent, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) said their clients had asked them "to investigate the pervasive harassment they have experienced based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender expression at District schools." The same letter demanded "prompt and meaningful action to remedy the current hostile environment and to compensate our clients for the harm caused by the District."

The plaintiffs, their demands ignored, have since decided to sue. Their complaint cites not only extensive verbal harassment, but also other, more serious forms of harassment, such as: "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,— acts often accompanied by anti-gay and gender-related slurs." The complaint also says: "These acts occurred on school grounds and some occurred in plain view of school officials. Plaintiffs and their parents also regularly reported the harassment to school staff and administrators"

A memo obtained by CNN says that both the Justice Department and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights are reviewing "allegations of harassment and discrimination in the Anoka-Hennepin School District based on sex, including peer-on-peer harassment based on not conforming to gender stereotypes." 

In a statement to Media Matters, Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), praised the lawsuit but pointed out that "when these cases end up in court, it is usually a sign that much has already been lost, and that something has gone seriously wrong" and said that such lawsuits are unfortunately "necessary to force school districts to follow the law and provide equal opportunity to all students." Byard also said that Anoka-Hennepin had refused the anti-bullying materials and training that GLSEN provides to school districts across the country.

According to SPLC and NCLR, official district policy is at least partly responsible for "pervasive anti-gay harassment in the district's schools. As evidence, they point to the district's 2009 implementation of a controversial policy requiring that school staff "remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions." 

Sam Wolfe, the SPLC's lead attorney in the case, says that this "gag policy" causes "serious harm" because it "singles out a vulnerable and disfavored minority - LGBT students - and prevents teachers and other district employees from supporting, or even protecting, those students within the classroom."

According to CNN, "Anoka-Hennepin is the only Minnesota school district known to have such a policy. However, at least eight other states -- Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah -- have statutes specifying varying limits on classroom instruction regarding homosexuality. Tennessee considered similar legislation this year."

Earlier this year SPLC sued Anoka-Hennepin on behalf of two lesbian high school students who were selected as "royalty" for their high school's winter events but prevented from walking in the procession together as a same-sex couple. The case was settled in favor of the students within 24 hours.

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