07/21/2011 10:08 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2011

Minnesota school district sued over gay student harassment

By David Bailey

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Five students or former students sued Minnesota's biggest school district on Thursday arguing that a policy limiting staff discussions about gay and lesbian issues left them open to slurs, threats and attacks.

The lawsuit alleges that students were subjected to years of pervasive bullying from near daily anti-gay slurs to reports of being urinated on, stabbed in the neck with pencils, choked or shoved into walls or lockers.

"Far from being isolated incidents, this type of verbal and physical abuse was a relentless and inescapable aspect of plaintiffs' school experience," the lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District said.

One student involved in the lawsuit attempted suicide after years of bullying, and at least four gay or lesbian students in the district succeeded in committing suicide between November 2009 and July 2010, the lawsuit says.

The students want a federal judge to strike down the district's policy and award monetary damages. Four top district officials were also named as defendants.

The district's policy adopted in 2009 singled out students and fueled an "epidemic of harassment," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which sued along with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"In school (and) after school, kids who are perceived as gay are harassed mercilessly until they drop out, melt down or lash back," Kendell said in a statement.

The Anoka-Hennepin district has 40,000 students across 13 suburbs north of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Seven students in the district have committed suicide since the fall of 2009.

The district said on Wednesday it was in talks with the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Education Department's office of civil rights over a need for more employee and student training on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender issues.

Anoka-Hennepin had been told by the Southern Poverty and Lesbian Rights centers about the bullying allegations in a May 24 letter to Superintendent Dennis Carlson, and was warned a lawsuit would follow if it did not "change the hostile environment."

The district defended the policy on Wednesday and said it hoped the centers could work with it on training programs. The district said Thursday it was reviewing the lawsuit.

Of the five students, one identified as lesbian, one gay and one bisexual. The other two said they were subjected to slurs and attacks because they were perceived as gay; one for his personal tastes, the other because he has two fathers.

The students said their grades suffered, school absences increased and they reported anxiety, depression or anger. Some transferred to other schools within the district, others left.

Incidents were regularly reported to district staff and administrators and sometimes witnessed by them with little action taken beyond an occasional reprimand, the lawsuit said. One student was told to "lay low," another to ignore attacks.

(Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)