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Anoka-Hennepin settlement: a closer look

Sometimes, the fine print turns out to be fine indeed.

Yesterday, after the ink had dried and Monday night’s fireworks subsided, it became clear that the settlement between the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the U.S. departments of Justice and Education and six current and former students who allege they were bullied is indeed a sweeping document.

The 61-page agreement goes well beyond state law and most district-level policies in addressing harassment and discrimination of LGBT kids and addresses the broader issue of gender identity. In addition to gay-bashing and -baiting, the district will ban and track bullying of kids who are picked on because of their perceived lack of gender conformity.

More simply put, it will no longer be OK to tease a classmate about his or her masculinity, femininity, clothing or mannerisms. Which, if communicated and enforced in full faith, isn’t going to leave bullies much terrain.

Yes, I realize weight and disability top the list of issues around which kids taunt each other, but taking gender identity off the table could be the start of a culture shift. Because if there’s one thing the experts agree on, it’s that making bullying — and bystanding — un-cool is the surest way to forge a safe and inclusive school culture.

Michael Ponto
faegrebd.comMichael Ponto

Partly, credit for the unprecedented breadth of the consent decree should accrue to the DOJ, according to Michael Ponto, one of the attorneys at Faegre Baker Daniels who has been working on the issue pro bono for a year.

And partly it was the content and precedential history of Title IX, the anti-gender-discrimination federal law under which the suit was filed.

‘It wasn’t just GLBT kids’ being harassed

But it was also circumstance. “It wasn’t just GLBT kids we found were being harassed,” said Ponto. “It was kids perceived as GLBT or as not appropriately feminine or masculine as well as kids whose parents were gay or lesbian.”

You know, kids who had been singled out as different in some way. This might, incidentally, explain why a sizable number of Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) members are “allies,” or straight kids who support their LGBT classmates or are concerned about their school’s environment.

“The district has been very cooperative with our investigation and throughout our negotiations,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez said during a conference call with reporters yesterday. “The district has been taking steps to address the harassment and concerns about the learning environment in its schools.

“We will monitor compliance with the consent decree for the next five years to sustain a culture change and promote a supportive learning environment,” Perez added. “Culture change takes time, but I am confident it is already happening in Anoka-Hennepin and will continue to happen.”

Monitoring and reporting

Other pleasant surprises found within the decree: A first-in-class system for monitoring climate, reporting and investigating complaints and ensuring valid ones are not buried.

In addition to making it possible for the DOJ and the DOE and its Office for Civil Rights to ensure that the agreement is fulfilled and effective, the reporting system will also serve as a kind of canary in the school-climate coal mine.

It will identify “hot spots,” either physical or not, from which multiple complaints originated. School administrators can act right away instead of waiting for their new federal partners to point out problems in a particular school, class or grade.

“The intention of that is to try to flag it if there are persistent problems, say, on school buses or in the cafeteria,” said Ponto. “That, among other things, was the subject of significant discussions during negotiations.”

One last note about those negotiations: Ponto and his colleagues deserve a shout-out for the months of fee-free work they put into the case, which was also being pursued by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the local firm Culberth & Lienemann.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/07/2012 - 11:12 am.

    I cant help but wonder

    What might we accomplish if we put 1/4 of the time and effort into academic success that we do into promoting leftist socio-economic and special interest agendas within government schools.

    Vouchers, folks; if you care a wit about kids; yours or anyone elses, it’s time for vouchers.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/07/2012 - 01:46 pm.

    And I can’t help but wonder…

    …what an intellectually honest answer from Mr. Swift would be like.

    “We” already put enormous resources of time and effort into academic success. That such success remains absent for far too many says more about the unsuccessful, and about our culture, than it does about whoever “we” might be. Mr. Swift’s inclination to call people and organizations names rather than engage their arguments is illustrative of why Anoka-Hennepin ended up in court in the first place.

    There’s nothing “leftist” or “socio-economic” or “special interest” about trying to eliminate bullying from the public schools so that kids of all kinds can focus their energy on academics, rather than having to defend who they are, or think they are.

    They’re not “government” schools, Mr. Swift. They’re our schools, public schools, available to all. The U.S. has roughly ten thousand public school districts – there is no institution in the United States more locally-controlled.

    Vouchers solve zero problems and create a host of new ones, not least of which is the undermining of one of the few remaining democratic institutions in a country that still occasionally likes to believe that it operates democratically.

    If Mr. Swift is truly interested in children beyond his own – and if he really believes his first sentence – he’ll support genuine, real-world consequences for students who fail, instead of bashing teachers and schools. If Mr. Swift were intellectually honest, he’d admit that it’s not teachers who take the ACT or SAT for college admission, or other, statewide tests to measure academic progress – or the lack thereof. Teachers have already taken those tests, and have already acquired college degrees, and have thereby proved that they have at least some level of academic skill.

    It’s the students who are failing. Changing a culture of bullying is one among many steps necessary to correct that.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/07/2012 - 03:39 pm.

      I respectfully disagree

      Vouchers solve a very fundamental, and all to often destructive problem parents of school age kids face.

      With voucher in hand, their children are not forced to attend government schools where lefitsts hide their blatently obvious intent behind laughably specious rhetoric such as you’ve just provided Ray.

      Further, I’m sure I’m not alone in detecting a sea change in stake holders willingness to waste too many more once in a lifetime educational opportunities kids have. Vouchers will happen; hopefully sooner than later.

      • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/07/2012 - 06:57 pm.

        According to last Sunday’s ‘Strib

        I’m a moderate Republican. Only in the minds of the right wing does that qualify as “leftist.”

        What in my response is “laughably specious rhetoric?” Specifics, please, otherwise, it’s just empty rhetoric.

        A voucher may make some parents feel better, but it does nothing to guarantee the academic success of their offspring.

        That success requires skilled teachers, a physically and emotionally safe environment, reasonably up-to-date materials and equipment, parents who are paying attention, and children/students who are motivated, and will do the work necessary to acquire an education. A breakdown in *any* of those areas makes academic success more difficult, though there, too, guarantees are absent. Our current President, to the dismay of many on the right, is of mixed race, was raised in a single-family, economically unstable household, attended public schools, and despite those several obstacles, did very well in college, and graduated with honors from Harvard Law.

        You and I should hope to be so accomplished, Mr. Swift, and so disciplined.

        Vouchers had nothing to do with Obama’s success. He’s Abraham Lincoln brought into the 20th century in terms of education – a kid born into very humble circumstances who made the best of opportunities that came his way, and had the discipline and work ethic (sometimes imposed by his mother) to make use of his abilities. It’s a stereotypically American success story, absolutely in the tradition of Horatio Alger.

        None of the educational debate would be necessary, of course, if a kid could go to sleep with a week’s worth of lessons coming through her earbuds, knowing that all of it would be absorbed correctly while she rested. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works, at least, not yet. If school is not a safe place to be, children don’t learn very well. Bullying, even if it never comes to actual physical violence, makes a child feel less safe. Bringing her daddy’s .357 magnum to school to deal with the bully will probably make her feel more safe, but it will make the rest of the school population feel considerably *less* safe, so I think we should rule that out as a solution.

        Feel free to provide us with *your* solution.

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