YEAR IN REVIEW: Anoka-Hennepin School District seeks to make progress after challenging times

Source: Press & News

By Mindy Mateuszczyk on January 3, 2013 at 12:03 am

Anoka-Hennepin School District made national headlines for its sexual orientation policy in 2011, which led to breaking more news in 2012 with a consent decree resulting from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by six students in 2011. Here’s a look at some of the top news stories in the school district for 2012.


Anoka-Hennepin School District reaches

lawsuit settlement/Tinglestad resigns

Anoka-Hennepin School Board members approved a consent decree, achieving settlement in two federal investigations and a harassment lawsuit. After more than a dozen mediation sessions and months of research, review and rough drafts, Anoka-Hennepin School District administration announced March 5, that they reached a proposed agreement that involved monetary compensation and specific follow-up measures to be enacted and overseen by the Department of Justice for the next five years.

Represented by Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), six students filed the lawsuit stating the district failed to intervene when they were being bullied over their perceived gender identity or sexual orientation. While some of the students remain in the district, for others, the situation had gotten so bad they ended up leaving altogether for safety.

The settlement also addresses the federal inquiry into the way the district handled issues involving bullying and sexual orientation, which began in 2010. The Justice Department said the agreement was a collaborative effort among the parties to the suit.

The investigation by the departments of Justice and Education found that the school district violated Title IX and Title IV of the Education Code by permitting a hostile environment against students on the basis of sex, including the failure to conform to sex stereotypes. Federal investigators reviewed more than 7,000 district documents and included interviews with more than 60 individuals, including current and former students, parents, district staff, teachers and administrators.

Superintendent Dennis Carlson described the consent decree as “a positive statement of the continuing effort to ensure a welcoming environment for all students and families in our district.”

The 61-page decree describes several steps Anoka-Hennepin will take to enhance its current anti-harassment efforts.

As part of the settlement, the six students were paid a total of $270,000 by the district’s insurance carrier. Additionally, the school district was also required to achieve the following:

• Retain an equity consultant to provide a systemic review and recommend any needed revisions to district policies related to harassment, as well as district procedures relating to the investigation and response to incidents of harassment, parental notification, and tracking of harassment incidents.

• Hire a Title IX/equity coordinator who will implement district policies and procedures, monitor complaints, ensure that district administrators and staff adhere to sex and sexual orientation-based discrimination laws, and identify trends and common areas of concern.

• Work with the equity consultant and Title IX coordinator/equity coordinator to develop improved and effective trainings on harassment for all students and employees who interact with students.

• Ensure that a counselor or other qualified mental health professional will be available during school hours for students in need.

• Hire a mental health consultant to review and access current practices in the district relating to assisting students who are subject to harassment.

• Provide additional specificity to further strengthen its annual anti-bullying survey.

• Expand the district’s harassment-prevention task force formed the summer of 2011 to advise the district regarding how to best foster a positive educational climate for all students.

• Work with the equity consultant to further identify hot spots in district schools where harassment is or becomes problematic, including outdoor locations and on school buses, and work the with equity consultant to develop actions that better align with a safe, welcoming school environment.

• Implement a tracking system that tracks reports of incidents and requires the district to investigate in a timely fashion. Comprehensive data management will be required on every incident.

School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said the $500,000 cost to implement those steps would come from a specific fund allocated for health and safety areas of the school district. The settlement money will be paid by the school’s insurance. Despite the findings of the Departments of Education and Justice, Heidemann was still unwilling to admit any mistakes on behalf of the district as he reiterated past commentary.

“The district determined through an exhaustive investigation that our administrators and teachers dealt with the harassment reports in a professional, timely and appropriate manner,” said Heidemann. “We are concerned that a monetary settlement negotiated by our insurer, Riverport, leaves the impression that our staff did not take appropriate action.”

The lawsuits were dismissed with the district denying fault or wrongdoing, the district stated in a press release.

As part of the agreement, a five-year partnership was established between the Anoka-Hennepin School District and the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The DOJ and the OCR will monitor and assist the district’s implementation of the consent decree through 2017. Should the district fail to implement the measures or if disputes arise, the issue would end up back in court.

“We approach the monitoring role of the DOJ and OCR in a spirit of collaboration, as it will provide an opportunity for continued communication on this important concern. Our efforts to further address harassment related to sexual orientation will result in positive change in our schools that will extend far beyond the five years of the consent decree,” said Superintendent Carlson.

As a result of the lawsuit, Dist. 6 representative Kathy Tinglestad resigned from her position on the board. She served a little more than three years on the board, first appointed in January 2009, then elected to a full term in November 2009, from which she resigned in April 2012.

Tinglestad cast the lone opposing vote against the consent decree. In a letter she read at the press conference, Tinglestad cited three reasons she voted against the settlement: costs, governance issues and precedent.

As part of the result of the consent decree, the school district also adopted a new policy to replace the sexual orientation policy that promoted neutrality. The new policy called the “respectful learning environment” policy can be read in its entirety here: