A Settlement in Anoka-Hennepin Schools
We all have at least one. A searing memory from middle or high school of being the butt of a joke or the target of ridicule. For me, it happened when a crude joke told by one of my friends went right over my head. When it was clear I did not understand the punch line, she turned to me and said, “Kendell, you are such a dork!” Everyone laughed. My ears burned, and my stomach lurched.
Now imagine incidents like this—and much, much worse—happening 10, 20, 30 times a day. Imagine the insults hurled by kids you grew up with—and those you don’t even know—often accompanied by a punch or a shove. Imagine never knowing when it might happen, but living with the dread of knowing that it certainly will—and when it does, followed by taunts of being “a faggot” or “dyke,” watching your teachers, standing within earshot, say and do nothing.
We’ve talked a great deal about bullying in schools the past several years, and many of us have committed ourselves to ending the terror for both the targets and the agents, because in many ways, both are victims. They are victims of a culture that fails to intervene and refuses to act. Nowhere has that failure been more stark than the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota.
Over the past three years, nine kids who had attended district schools—four targeted because they were assumed to be gay or lesbian—decided they couldn’t live with the relentless bullying and ended their lives. In some cases, parents tried desperately to protect their children, and were told that nothing could be done, or their kids brought it on themselves, or the district was doing all it could. Nine kids. Most of them close in age to my own 15-year-old son. Each of them a beloved son or daughter. Last month Rolling Stone magazine wrote a riveting and revolting account of life for these kids in the school district.
I was in Minnesota last fall. We were in the midst of our lawsuit brought by six student plaintiffs against the Anoka-Hennepin School District, challenging the district’s lethal policy that banned any discussion of sexual orientation and forced teachers to be complicit bystanders to bullying. I met Tammy Aaberg, whose openly gay son, Justin, was a constant target of anti-gay epithets and bullying. Justin was bright, handsome, sensitive, and loving. Tammy found him dead in his bedroom in July 2010. It is impossible to recall meeting Tammy without feeling heart-rending anguish. Yet there she was, at an NCLR event to support us and fight for her son’s memory. A son whose bright smile should still be lighting her life.
It is against this tragic backdrop that we announce an agreement that resolves our litigation against the school district. We, along with our litigation partners, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Culberth & Lienemann, LLP, and Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, with a serious assist from the Department of Justice and Department of Education, have worked with the school district to implement serious, long-term, federally-supervised changes designed to prevent and respond effectively to bullying.
The agreement also clarifies that teachers can and should support and affirm their students based on protected characteristics such as being LGBT. No longer will teachers or administrators, many of whom have long wanted to step up, feel as if they must choose between their jobs or defending bullied students. No longer will the lives of LGBT people be treated as too dangerous or threatening to discuss openly. No longer will anyone ever again sit idle while sons and daughters give up on this life because they have no hope for a better day.
NCLR was only able to fight on behalf of our six young clients—Brittany, Damian, Dylon, Ebonie, Kyle, and Jane Doe—because of the support of donors like you. I hope you will make a gift today in honor of their courage.
I am proud and relieved that we were able to settle this suit. I feel optimistic that we have been a part of changing the toxic culture in the school district, and improving the lives of LGBT students, and in fact all students, in the district. I know that we have certainly ignited a meaningful and landscape-altering conversation in Anoka-Hennepin and beyond.
In case anyone is in doubt, let me be clear: We are not walking away from these kids. We will be monitoring and watching the district to assure that the changes we have fought for improve and reform the climate and culture for their LGBT students.
This agreement will help make schools safer so other young girls and boys never again endure unchecked harassment, taunts, and bullying. Our resolution in this case comes too late for the kids who took their own lives—Justin, Samantha, July, Aaron, and Nick among them—but we are committed to assuring that their suffering and loss was not in vain.
Read the press release about the settlement.