COON RAPIDS, Minn. — Minnesota's largest school district on Monday voted to settle a pair of lawsuits over a policy that was criticized for failing to protect gay students from bullying.
The Anoka-Hennepin School Board approved the settlement 5-1 at its meeting Monday evening. The district agreed to a long list of measures to help prevent and address sex-based harassment at its middle and high schools, including hiring consultants and working with federal authorities to ensure the district complies with the terms. The district's insurance carrier will pay the six current and former students named in the lawsuits a total of $270,000, and the district will tap about $500,000 of its own funds to implement the agreement.
Superintendent Dennis Carlson told reporters the agreement "helps us move forward as a district to a better day for all students. When we have finished this process, we believe we will have developed a model that all school districts can follow."
The students sued the district last summer 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 lone school board member to vote against the settlement, Kathy Tingelstad, resigned in protest, expressing concern about the costs and saying it set a bad precedent.
The chairman of the school board, Tom Heidemann, said the settlement "likely saved the district millions of dollars and many years of ongoing litigation." He said the consent decree builds on the district's efforts to combat bullying, and begins a new five-year partnership with the U.S. Justice Department.
However, Tingelstad said the district had been "drug through the mud" by advocacy groups based outside the state. She didn't take questions from reporters, but she appeared to be referring to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represented the students, and other groups from across the country that have weighed in on the debate.
"Like a target of bullying, I choose to leave this situation, by resigning, instead of fighting back against the out-of-state bullies," Tingelstad said.
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.
Some of the student-plaintiffs and their parents who were present for Monday's vote hailed it as an important move forward.
"I see change coming and I'm real excited for it," said Dylan Frey, a ninth-grader at Anoka High School who identifies himself as gay and said things have been getting better for him in recent months as the debate has unfolded.
The proposed settlement was reached between the district and the plaintiffs. The Department of Justice, which began a civil rights investigation, and the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights were involved in developing the consent decree, which still needs formal approval from a federal judge.
The extent to which bullying and sexual orientation contributed to the six suicides was a matter of dispute. A parent of one student said her son was bullied for being gay, and gay advocacy groups say some of the others were also bullied. Some but not all were identified by family or friends as gay or were perceived by their peers as gay.
The district changed its anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in October 2010.
For the 2011-2012 school year, the district launched a new anti-bullying campaign. It called for staff to be in the halls and other places where students congregate, and for them to immediately stop bullying and report perpetrators.
Anoka-Hennepin has about 39,000 students in more than 35 schools north of Minneapolis and St. Paul.