WASHINGTON The Departments of Justice and Education, together with six private student plaintiffs and the Anoka-Hennepin School District, filed a proposed consent decree today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, resolving complaints of sex-based harassment of middle and high school students in the school district. Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 each prohibits sex-based harassment, including harassment based on nonconformity with gender stereotypes and sexual harassment.
The students in the case will share in a $270,000 cash settlement.
In November 2010, the Department of Justice received a complaint alleging that students in the school district were being harassed by other students because they didn't dress or act in ways that conform to gender stereotypes. The Departments of Justice and Education conducted an extensive investigation into sex-based harassment in the district's middle and high schools. Many students reported that the unsafe and unwelcoming school climate inhibited their ability to learn. The parties worked collaboratively to draft a consent decree addressing and resolving the allegations in the complaints.
If approved by the court, the consent decree will ensure that the school district:
- Retains an expert consultant in the area of sex-based harassment to review the district's policies and procedures concerning harassment;
- Develops and implements a comprehensive plan for preventing and addressing student-on-student sex-based harassment at the middle and high schools;
- Enhances and improves its training of faculty, staff and students on sex-based harassment;
- Hires or appoints a Title IX coordinator to ensure proper implementation of the district's sex-based harassment policies and procedures and district compliance with Title IX;
- Retains an expert consultant in the area of mental health to address the needs of students who are victims of harassment;
- Provides for other opportunities for student involvement and input into the district's ongoing anti-harassment efforts;
- Improves its system for maintaining records of investigations and responding to allegations of harassment;
- Conducts ongoing monitoring and evaluations of its anti-harassment efforts; and
- Submits annual compliance reports to the departments.
The consent decree will remain in place for five years.
"Harassment by or against students in schools is unacceptable, and not a 'rite of passage' to be endured by anyone. Parents are entitled to know that their children will be safe in school every day," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. "We commend the Anoka-Hennepin School District for its willingness to tackle sex-based harassment and for working collaboratively with the federal government to address concerns across the district. We hope the district will become a model for schools nationwide by providing a safe and nurturing learning environment for all students free from bullying and harassment."
B. Todd Jones, U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, said, "Nearly 40,000 students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District will benefit from this consent decree. Schools must be safe places for all students. Bullying of any kind cannot be tolerated. To that end, the Anoka-Hennepin School District took great strides today."
As Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education recognized, "If students aren't safe, then students aren't learning. Bullying, sexual harassment and gender stereotyping of any student, including LGBT students, have no place in our nation's schools. We must work to stop those abusive behaviors when they take place, repair their harmful effects and prevent them from happening in the future. The Department of Education is committed to working with Anoka-Hennepin School District to ensure that the environment in District schools is safe and welcoming for all students and that the measures now being taken by the District are effective in preventing and addressing any future harassment."
The enforcement of Title IV and Title IX are top priorities of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Offices. Additional information about the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is available on its website at www.justice.gov/crt. Additional information about the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Minnesota is available on its website at www.justice.gov/usao/mn.
The enforcement of Title IX is a also top priority of the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Additional information about the Office for Civil Rights is available on its website at www2.ed.gov/ocr .
Representing the students were Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, and Culberth & Lienemann, LLP.
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Civil Rights groups applaud US Department of Justice's findings against Anoka-Hennepin School District
( MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. March 6, 2012 ) The Southern Poverty Law Center ( SPLC ) , the National Center for Lesbian Rights ( NCLR ) , and the law firms of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP and Culberth & Lienemann LLP applaud the United States Department of Justice ( DOJ ) and the Department of Education's ( DOE ) conclusion that the Anoka-Hennepin School District violated Title IX and Title IV of the Education Code by inadequately addressing a hostile environment against students on the basis of sex, including the failure to conform to sex stereotypes.
This determination was released Monday in connection with an agreement reached by the Anoka-Hennepin school board, DOJ, DOE, and the coalition of civil rights groups and private attorneys representing six student plaintiffs who brought two federal gender and sexual-orientation harassment lawsuits against the District. The agreement must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Joan N. Ericksen.
In its complaint, the federal government detailed its findings that District students, including students who are gay or are perceived to be gay, were subject to severe or pervasive discrimination because they did not conform to gender stereotypes. The description of the hostile environment within District schools contained in the Complaint by the United States mirrored the experience of the six students represented by the civil rights organizations.
The DOJ's complaint describes the hostile environment experienced by numerous students, including a student identified as Student A. For example, students told Student A, "You're a guy, act like it," and called him "so gay" and "fag," even though Student A had not identified his sexual orientation. Students spread false rumors about him, including rumors that he is a pedophile and rapes his mother. Students threatened to kill him, pushed him, threw food at him, and called him names nearly every day for two years.
Another student, identified as Student B, was called "'gay boy,' 'homo,' and 'fag' because of his gender nonconformity. The complaint describes how students pushed Student B up against a wall and forcibly restrained him. Students also harassed him with language of a sexual nature such as, 'Your dads are gay, so you're going to be gay. Why don't you just go and suck their cocks now?'"
The findings were the result of a comprehensive investigation by DOJ and DOE officials, who reviewed more than 7,000 District documents and interviewed more than 60 individuals including current and former students, parents, District staff, teachers and administratorsover the course of multiple visits. From that investigation, the United States determined that the District knew that its responses to sex-based harassment were inadequate because the harassment continued and in certain instances escalated.
The agreement also specifically provides that teachers may expressly affirm the dignity and self-worth of students and any protected characteristics of students, such as being LGBT, without running afoul of any district policy.
"Our community has experienced terrible heartache and grief, but today is a day of healing," said Jeff Frei, parent of a student plaintiff, Dylon.
"This consent decree sets this district firmly on the path to a safer and more respectful place for all its students," said Sam Wolfe, an attorney for the SPLC's LGBT project. "I'm hopeful that it will help this district become the best it can be and a role model for other schools across the country. This is a historic agreement made possible through the courage of six students who, with the support of a caring community, stood up to say we demand to be treated with equal dignity and respect the abuse must stop.
"With this agreement, we hope that the daily epithets and terrorizing experiences of too many students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District are over," said Kate Kendell, NCLR executive director. "Teachers and administrators can now intervene on behalf of any student and with training and intervention this agreement requires, we believe that every student, LGBT and otherwise, will feel more secure and better able to learn."
"Checks and balances in this five year plan are critical to ensure its success," said Celeste Culberth of Culberth & Lienemann. "The students have achieved an amazing result that will likely be a model for the country."
Mike Ponto, lead attorney on the case with Faegre Baker Daniels, noted that "This lawsuit is about ensuring that our schools offer equal educational opportunities to all students, including those who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, those with lesbian or gay parents, and those who are simply 'different' in the eyes of others. In the past, the district failed to respond effectively to repeated incidents of harassment directed at our clients and at other kids like them. The result was that for many of these kids school became intolerable. I am proud of our clients who stepped forward to bring this lawsuit. In doing so, they courageously shared their heartbreaking experiences and they helped bring about this truly groundbreaking settlement. With this broad reaching consent decree in place Anoka-Hennepin will be a better and safer place for all students."
Judge Ericksen could approve the decree within the coming weeks. As part of the agreement, the DOJ and DOE will monitor the district's adherence to the consent decree for a period of five years.
Other attorneys representing the student plaintiffs include: Christine P. Sun ( SPLC ) ; Christopher F. Stoll ( NCLR ) ; Ilona Turner ( formerly of NCLR, now with the Transgender Law Center ) ; and Martin Chester, Chris Dolan, and Zack Stephenson from Faegre Baker Daniels LLP; and Leslie Lienemann from Culberth and Lienemann LLP.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, with offices in Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama, is a nonprofit civil rights organization that combats bigotry and discrimination through litigation, education and advocacy. For more information, see www.splcenter.org .
The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education. www.NCLRights.org .
Faegre Baker Daniels LLP is one of the 75 largest law firms in the United States. From its offices in the U.S., China, and the United Kingdom, the firm's 800-plus professionals handle the most complex transactional, regulatory, and litigation matters for clients ranging from emerging enterprises to multinational companies.
Culberth & Lienemann LLP is a Twin Cities-based law firm that focuses its practice on representing workers in civil rights actions, on both an individual and a class-wide basis. www.CLSLawyers.com .
REMARKS AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY BY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL THOMAS E. PEREZ ON ANOKA-HENNEPIN CONFERENCE CALL
Good Morning. Joining me today is Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, and Greg Brooker, Civil Chief at the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Minnesota. Greg and Russlynn have been great partners in this effort to enforce the civil rights of students to attend schools free from bullying and harassment.
Education is a great equalizer. Yet, students cannot learn if they are afraid to go to school. Students cannot learn if they are being harassed and threatened. Students cannot learn if they are not free to be themselves. Students cannot learn if they feel that school administrators can't and don't protect them.
Bullying cannot be a rite of passage in our nation's schools. Instead, our schools must be safe and nurturing environments that promote learning and full participation by all students. As a parent of three students in public school, I realize how important it is for children to be free from fear so that they can learn and thrive in school every day.
This case is about ensuring equal educational opportunity for all students in the Anoka-Hennepin school District. The Departments of Justice and Education, together with six student plaintiffs and the Anoka-Hennepin School District, filed a proposed Consent Decree last night that resolves claims of sex-based harassment in middle and high schools in the district by creating a safe, nurturing learning environment for everyone. The departments investigated a complaint that the learning environment in the schools was unsafe and unwelcoming for students who did not conform to gender stereotypes. In Anoka-Hennepin, students were afraid to go to school because they were repeatedly harassed. Some students faced threats, physical violence, derogatory language and other forms of harassment on a daily basis. As a result, some students stopped attending school for periods of time, dropped out or contemplated or attempted suicide. Across the District, students lost their will to learn.
The consent decree follows an extensive joint investigation by the departments. Our attorneys interviewed over 60 individuals, including current and former students, parents, teachers and district staff and administrators, and reviewed 7,000 pages of documents.
The consent decree is a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform that will enhance the district's policies, training and other efforts to ensure that every student in the district is free from sex-based harassment. The consent decree will build on the district's existing anti-harassment efforts to help to create an environment where all students feel safe in school, are free from harassment, and can be themselves.
Under the proposed consent decree the district will:
-Retain an expert consultant in the area of sex-based harassment to review the district's policies and procedures concerning harassment;
-Develop and implement a comprehensive plan for preventing and addressing student-on-student sex-based harassment at the middle and high schools;
-Enhance and improve its training of faculty, staff, and students on sex-based harassment;
-Hire or appoint a Title IX Coordinator to ensure proper implementation of the district's sex-based harassment policies and procedures and district compliance with Title IX;
-Retain an expert consultant in the area of mental health to address the needs of students who are victims of harassment;
-Improve its system for maintaining records of investigations and responding to allegations of harassment;
-Conduct ongoing monitoring and evaluations of its anti-harassment efforts; and
-Submit annual compliance reports to the departments.
The district has been very cooperative with our investigation and throughout our negotiations. The district has been taking steps to address the harassment and concerns about the learning environment in its schools. Last month, the district adopted a Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum policy, which sets forth the district's commitment to affirm the dignity and self worth of all students regardless of their background. This was a very important step forward in the effort to establish a safe, inclusive and nurturing learning environment for all students. We will continue to work with the district to assist with implementation of the consent decree. We will monitor compliance with the consent decree for the next five years to sustain a culture change and promote a supportive learning environment. Culture changes takes time, but I am confident it is already happening in Anoka-Hennepin and will continue to happen.
Through our consent decree, it is our hope that Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota's largest school district educating nearly 40,000 students in 37 schools, will become a model for other school districts in its efforts to address sex-based and other types of prohibited harassment.
I also want to thank the students and others who came forward in this case. Their courage and insights were invaluable. As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." A group of courageous students have indeed changed the world. The decree explicitly provides for opportunities for student involvement and input into the district's ongoing anti-harassment efforts.
This administration is committed to combating harassment and bullying. Where we see barriers to educational opportunities, we work aggressively to break down those barriers. In Tehachapi, Calif., following the death of Seth Walsh, a gay student who took his own life, we worked with Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights on an agreement with the school district to amend its policies and provide training to address and prevent sex-based harassment. At South Philadelphia High School, we engaged in a comprehensive consent decree to address the severe and pervasive harassment of Asian American students. And in Owatonna, Minn., we entered a settlement agreement to resolve an investigation into the racial and national origin harassment and disproportionate discipline of Somali-American students at Owatonna High School. Last year, the Department of Education produced a comprehensive guidance on bullying. We will use every tool in our law enforcement arsenal to ensure that all students have access to equal educational opportunity.
We look forward to working with the district to ensure that all its students are able to learn in a safe and supportive environment.
Let me now turn it over to Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education.
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