COON RAPIDS, Minn. — Minnesota’s largest school district on Monday voted to settle federal lawsuits over a policy that was criticized for failing to protect students from bullying.
The Anoka-Hennepin School Board approved the settlement 5-1 at its meeting Monday evening. The district agreed to retain a consultant and to develop and implement a plan to prevent and address sex-based harassment at its middle and high schools.
The agreement will be in effect for five years. The district’s insurance carrier will pay the students a total of $270,000.
Six current or former students sued the district last summer in a pair of lawsuits over a policy requiring staff to remain neutral when the topic of sexual orientation came up in the classroom. The plaintiffs claimed the policy was a gag order that prevented teachers from effectively protecting gay and lesbian students.
The neutrality policy came under fire after six students in the district committed suicide in less than two years. It was replaced last month with one that requires teachers to foster a respectful learning environment for all students. The new policy also says teachers shouldn’t try to persuade students to adopt any particular viewpoint when contentious political, religious, social or economic issues come up.
The school board adopted the new policy after months of debate and several public hearings before impassioned audiences split between critics of the old policy and conservative parents and community members who believe homosexual conduct is immoral. Some defended the old policy as a way to prevent public schools from spreading what they consider “homosexual propaganda.”
In the lawsuit, the six plaintiffs contended the district failed to protect them from severe bullying and harassment, including physical abuse and verbal slurs. Four of the plaintiffs identify themselves as gay or bisexual and two do not. They asked the court to block the policy, order effective protections including better training, and award them unspecified damages.
Court-ordered mediation had continued quietly under U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau since last August while the school board and the community struggled to come up with the new policy. The proposed settlement was reached between the district, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.