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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Outfront Minnesota on the Anoka Hennepin School District Lawsuit

Anoka-Hennepin School District Harassment Settlement Sparks Uproar
After reports surfaced on August 13th that the Anoka-Hennepin school district, the state's largest, had approved a $25,000 payout in a complaint brought by a student who had been harassed because two of his teachers had thought he was gay, OutFront Minnesota has been swamped with inquiries from people across the state expressing outrage about the incident, the district's response, and what will happen to assure that a similar incident will not happen again.

OutFront Minnesota has been involved with the Anoka-Hennepin school district for years, unsuccessfully opposing its 1995 "health curriculum policy," which prohibited staff from suggesting that homosexuality was a "normal or valid lifestyle," but successfully helping replace this policy with better language in February.

With respect to this incident, the student involved has reached a settlement with the district to resolve his complaint, and OutFront Minnesota wishes him well in moving on from this episode. We believe that in order for the Anoka-Hennepin school district to restore faith in its ability to provide a safe, respectful learning environment for all, it needs to do (at least) three things: provide training to its staff about its new "sexual orientation policy" and anti-harassment policies in general; provide training to its staff about GLBT-related issues students face; and assure that its student-services staff are specifically tasked with assisting GLBT students in need.

An August 17th statement issued by the Anoka-Hennepin school board suggests they've heard the complaints and agree the district must do better. But the response cannot be just words - there must be actions. Please encourage the board and superintendent to take concrete steps to learn from this incident. Contact information for the board and Superintendent Dennis Carlson may be found on the Anoka-Hennepin school district's website.

The Strib editorializes about the subject:

Bigotry, bullying shouldn't be tolerated in any Minnesota school.

Last update: August 18, 2009 - 11:38 AM

Grounds for immediate dismissal of teachers include physical abuse of a student, criminal conduct such as theft, viewing pornography on school premises or discharging a weapon on school grounds. Anoka-Hennepin officials said Monday that Cleveland and Filson's behavior didn't rise to that level, and the policy is to give them a chance to correct the problem behavior.

Were there any adults in the classroom with Alex Merritt that awful fall term two years ago at Anoka-Hennepin's Secondary Technical Education Program?

Anyone reading a recent Minnesota Department of Human Rights report quickly comes to this conclusion: No. Merritt, now 18, wasn't left unsupervised with other students during the first part of the 2007-2008 school year. Instead, he had two teachers -- Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson -- who acted more like teenaged bullies than educators who had previously received "outstanding performance" awards.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District settled last month with Merritt's family for $25,000, while still denying it violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act. In the dry language of bureaucrats, the Department of Human Rights concluded there was probable cause the two teachers harassed Merritt because of perceived sexual orientation.

Allow us to put it in real-world terms: Cleveland and Filson made Merritt's life a living hell simply because they thought he was gay.

Merritt actually is straight. But according to the report, the two teachers -- trusted by parents and the community with the lives of hundreds of teenagers -- repeatedly heaped verbal abuse on him, encouraging students to pile on as well. "Cleveland singled [Merritt] out on a nearly daily basis by making jokes, comments and innuendos ... that he was gay,'' the report stated.

Among other moronic comments, Cleveland, 39, joked about Merritt having a "thing for older men," that his "fence swings both ways,'' and compared him to former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who was busted in a Minneapolis airport men's room for trying to pick up a male police officer.

The report suggests that Filson, 56, may have been even worse, saying that Merritt liked to wear women's clothes and making juvenile jokes about Merritt's car, a Ford Probe. He even laughed and agreed with students, who after hearing about a man who molested a deer, said it sounded like something Merritt would do.

Is it any wonder Merritt endured death threats and was so miserable he transferred to another school? What makes the teachers' reported behavior even more reprehensible is that both should have been aware of this information: Teens are particularly susceptible to self-injurious behavior, and suicide is a leading cause of death in this age group.

Cleveland taught social studies; Filson, law enforcement. But students in their classrooms allegedly got up-close instruction in bigotry, a despicable educational legacy. Cleveland and Filson violated the community's trust and tarnished Minnesota's education system. Why should they ever be allowed again to teach?

Filson declined comment on Monday, saying he'd been advised not to by legal counsel. Cleveland hasn't returned the newspaper's calls. Anoka-Hennepin and Education Minnesota officials provided few additional details Monday. So far, Cleveland got an unpaid two-day suspension and a curriculum development assignment that was the teacher's equivalent of writing "I'm sorry I was mean" 50 times on the chalkboard. Filson was disciplined, Anoka-Hennepin officials said Monday, but wouldn't say how.

Merritt's willingness to speak out publicly about his ordeal contrasts with the teachers, the district and the union -- all parties hiding behind policy and lawyers. After graduating in another suburb, Merritt wants to know why Cleveland and Filson still have jobs. He deserves a better answer than he's gotten.

The featured comment states:

How can you say "if it happened"? There was a full investigation done by the MN Dept of Human Rights - I found the case within a minute on … read more their website. I only read a synopsis of the report, but it very clearly states that yes, what the student said happened, did in fact happen. Therefore, I think it's pretty clear that it's not just rumors anymore about this case. All teachers in that district are not bad, but how the whole situation was handled seems poorly done. If the district allows this behavior to occur with minimal punishment, then what else will happen there?