Anoka-Hennepin settles lawsuit, board member resigns

Jefferson Fietek and Tammi Aaberg react to Anoka-Hennepin School District’s settlement with the U.S. Department of Justic and the U.S. Department of Education. “I think it’s a new start,” Aaberg said. Photo by Sue Austreng

Staff Writer

After more than a dozen mediation sessions and months of research, review and rough drafts, Anoka-Hennepin School District administration announced tonight (March 5) that they have reached an agreement on harassment lawsuits.

Moments after casting the only opposing vote, board member Kathy Tingelstad resigned her position, effective immediately.

The lawsuits, filed July 21, 2011 by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, included allegations of gender and sexual orientation-related harassment.

In her resignation letter, Tingelstad cited three reasons she voted “No” on the settlement: costs, governance issues and precedent.

“Over the past year Anoka-Hennepin has been ‘drug through the mud’ by advocacy organizations from outside of our state,” Tingelstad said.

“Like a target of bullying, I choose to leave the situation by resigning – instead of fighting back against the out-of-state bullies,” she said, adding that she hopes by bringing public attention to the situation “others will deal appropriately with the people and organizations who have been bullying Anoka-Hennepin School officials.”

Superintendent Dennis Carlson described the consent decree as “a positive statement of the continuing effort to ensure a welcoming environment for all students and families in our district.”

The settlement resolves two things: a lawsuit filed by six former and current students and a federal inquiry into the way the district handled issues involving bullying and sexual orientation.

The 61-page decree describes several steps Anoka-Hennepin will take to enhance its current anti-harassment efforts.

Under the agreement, which the Justice Department said was a collaborative effort among the parties to the suit, the six students will be paid a total of $270,000 by the district’s insurance carrier.

The school district will also achieve the following:

• Retain an equity consultant to provide a systemic review and recommend any needed revisions to district policies related to harassment, as well as district procedures relating to the investigation and response to incidents of harassment, parental notification, and tracking of harassment incidents;

• Hire a Title IX/equity coordinator who will implement district policies and procedures, monitor complaints, ensure that district administrators and staff adhere to sex and sexual orientation-based discrimination laws, and identify trends and common areas of concern;

• Work with the equity consultant and Title IX coordinator/equity coordinator to develop improved and effective trainings on harassment for all students and employees who interact with students;

• Ensure that a counselor or other qualified mental health professional will be available during school hours for students in need;

• Hire a mental health consultant to review and access current practices in the district relating to assisting students who are subject to harassment;

• Provide additional specificity to further strengthen its annual anti-bullying survey;

• Expand the district’s harassment-prevention task force formed the summer of 2011 to advise the district regarding how to best foster a positive educational climate for all students; and

• Work with the equity consultant to further identify hot spots in district schools where harassment is or becomes problematic, including outdoor locations and on school buses and work with the equity consultant to develop actions that better align with a safe, welcoming school environment.

School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said the $500,000 cost to implement those steps will come from a specific fund allocated for health and safety areas of the school district.

As part of the agreement, a five-year partnership has been established between the Anoka-Hennepin School District and the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

The DOJ and the OCR will monitor and assist the district’s implementation of the consent decree through 2017. The lawsuits will be dismissed with the district denying fault or wrongdoing, the district stated in a press release.

“I think it’s a new start,” said Tammi Aaberg, whose gay son Justin commited suicide after being bullied.

“It’s nice to know what’s tracking, what’s working and what’s not working. I think that could have helped my son,” she said.

Michael McGee and his partner David Backes, are the parents of Damien McGee Backes, a 15-year old former Champlin Park High School student.

After the settlement was announced McGee said, “Today marks a new beginning. We applaud this long-term commitment that our kids will focus on education, not on survival of bullying.”

Later, fighting back tears, Damien said, “I’m very proud that the district agreed to do this and that they are trying to work to keep kids safe at school.”

Dylon Frei, a ninth-grader at Anoka High School, said, “I’m glad we can make a difference for everybody. Everybody deserves a great chance to have fun in school.”

“It’s getting better,” Dylon said. “I see change coming and I’m really excited for it.”

“We approach the monitoring role of the DOJ and OCR in a spirit of collaboration, as it will provide an opportunity for continued communication on this important concern. Our efforts to further address harassment related to sexual orientation will result in positive change in our schools that will extend far beyond the five years of the consent decree,” said Carlson.

Sue Austreng is at sue.austreng@ecm-inc.com

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