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The Anoka-Hennepin School District Settlement: A Sea Change for School Safety Nationwide

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This week marks a historic paradigm shift in the way the federal government interacts with communities. The slow behemoth of federal justice moved at the breakneck pace of 16 months to create a blueprint for school safety that can be implemented nationwide, all in the interest of keeping children and youth safe, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.

The consent decree among Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District, the Departments of Justice and Education, and students represents history in civil rights for youth and for LGBT people. It is also a huge win in the fight to promote health and psychological well-being of youth at school, as it emphasizes ongoing availability of counseling for students and evaluation of anti-bullying measures from a mental health perspective.

Beginning in the 2009-2010 school year, at least 10 students in this school district took their own lives. As many as half of those students were or were perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and many of them had been viciously harassed by their peers at school. Groups like The Trevor Project became involved in the summer of 2010, at the request of family and community members, in helping train students in suicide prevention and to recognize and address bullying, but we were prevented from training on campus. Before long, the district faced federal investigations and high-profile lawsuits for violations of state and federal civil rights codes.

For a while, it seemed like no change would ever be possible, and LGBT youth in the district would continue to face rejection and discrimination. Yet a sea change has occurred in Anoka-Hennepin that will affect our culture in schools and communities for years to come.

The consent decree announced this week is an opportunity for the community of Anoka-Hennepin to be a national model for school safety and effectively protecting youth from the harmful effects of bullying and harassment. To schools nationwide, the groups in Minnesota didn't "settle." They created a blueprint for school safety.

This blueprint looks holistically at a school district to provide a safe learning environment for all students, understanding that an environment free of harassment is critical for learning and ultimately for school success. It makes sure that districts enforce Title IX as complete gender-nondiscrimination, not only in athletics but school-wide. It establishes training for students in grades K-12, teachers, and staff in bullying and harassment prevention and identifying the risk factors for suicide. The blueprint spells out that students have access to counseling services throughout the school day. It also establishes task forces made up of students, faculty, parents, and staff to identify hot spots where harassment and bullying occur and develop real solutions to make them safer.

When we look at overall student and youth safety, especially for those who are or are perceived to be LGBT, we know that access to care and acceptance by their families and peers play significant roles. The blueprint for school safety makes it easier for students to get the help they need and ensures that all students, faculty, and staff within a district will be trained from kindergarten through high school to accept and respect their peers. Measures like these are effective and they can truly save lives.