(Minneapolis, MN, July 21, 2011)—The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and Faegre & Benson, LLP, filed a federal lawsuit today challenging the pervasive anti-gay harassment in schools within the Anoka-Hennepin School District as well as the district’s “gag policy” that prevents teachers from discussing issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
NCLR, SPLC, and Faegre & Benson filed the suit on behalf of five students who have faced severe anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment while attending school in the district. It charges that the district’s gag policy perpetuated the harassment suffered by these students and others. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota after the school district failed to address the persistent abuse or repeal its discriminatory policy.
“There is something seriously wrong in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, and district officials know it,” said NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell, Esq. “In school after school, kids who are perceived as gay are harassed mercilessly until they drop out, melt down, or lash back. This epidemic of harassment—unlike anything we’ve seen in neighboring districts—is plainly fueled by the district’s shameful and illegal policy singling out LGBTQ people and LGBTQ people alone for total exclusion from acknowledgement within the classroom.”
The lawsuit charges that LGBTQ students and students perceived as LGBTQ were subjected to anti-LGBTQ slurs on a daily basis and were physically threatened or attacked by peers. While many of these abuses occurred in front of teachers or were reported to school officials, school personnel almost always took insufficient action to stop the abuse.
“We are disappointed that the district fails to see the serious harm this policy is causing its students,” said Sam Wolfe, lead attorney on the case for the SPLC. “School and district officials who are entrusted with the safety and education of all students continue to ignore, minimize, dismiss, and even blame victims for the abusive behavior of other students.”
The lawsuit comes a day after Anoka-Hennepin School District officials denied any responsibility for the severe and pervasive harassment suffered by LGBTQ students. It was also reported on Wednesday that the district is at the center of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of Civil Rights because of reports of anti-gay bullying.
The lawsuit describes numerous incidents of harassment, including the following:
•One student faced daily verbal and physical harassment at school after classmates discovered that she is a lesbian. She reported the harassment to school officials numerous times, but the only response was an occasional verbal reprimand to the harassers. The student eventually dropped out of school and attempted suicide.
•Another student reported chronic anti-LGBTQ harassment to school authorities for more than two years, only to have school officials suggest that he leave the school because they could not protect him.
•A third student was picked on relentlessly because he likes to wear colorful clothes and sing songs by female artists. His school’s response was not to address the harassment, but to treat him as the problem. The school prevented him from wearing “girly” clothing and made him miss class time to walk through the hallways separate from the other students, escorted by a staff member.
Two parents and a student spoke at the press conference about their own experiences with these issues. A 14-year old student discussed his experiences in the district, saying, “It got so bad that every day when my bus got to school I thought about hiding under one of the seats so I wouldn’t have to go in to school: so I wouldn’t be called names or pushed around, and so I wouldn’t have to hear the rumors other kids were making up about me.”
Jeff Frei, the father of one of the students who was persistently bullied, said, “Our son has a right to go to school every day feeling safe and accepted. This is a basic right that every child has. His older sister shouldn’t have to spend an hour waiting outside his school so she can walk him home to make sure he gets there safely. We cannot go through another school year of this and we cannot lose any more of our young people to this. Enough is enough.”
The school district’s gag policy, known officially as the “Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy,” prohibits staff from offering support to LGBTQ students or acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people. It has played a significant role in encouraging the hostile anti-LGBTQ climate in the district, by imposing a stigma on LGBTQ students as pariahs, not fit to be mentioned within the school community—a message that comes across loud and clear both to LGBTQ students and their harassers. It has also limited the effective responses that teachers can provide when they see anti-LGBTQ harassment taking place.
The lawsuit asserts that the district’s gag policy and its failure to protect these students from harassment violated these students’ rights under the United States Constitution, Title IX, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
The SPLC, NCLR, and Faegre & Benson began investigating the district’s policies in 2010 after several LGBTQ students from the district died by suicide.
Attorneys working on the case include Christine Sun and Sam Wolfe of the Southern Poverty Law Center; Christopher Stoll and Ilona Turner of the National Center for Lesbian Rights; and Michael A. Ponto, Marty Chester, Christopher Dolan, and Zack Stephenson of Faegre & Benson, LLP.
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.
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.