Gavel

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights will officially join the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District over alleged discrimination.

In a court order filed Aug. 5, Judge Jenny Walker Jasper denied a request by the district to dismiss the case and affirmed a motion to intervene filed in March by Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero.

The case in question revolves around allegations made by a transgender boy who is a former Coon Rapids High School student only identified by the initials N.H. in court documents.

N.H. alleges that between 2016 and 2017 the school violated his rights by segregating him from other boys when the School Board required he use a separate, enhanced-privacy changing room due to his transgender identity.

Jasper ruled the Department of Human Rights could intervene because of the case’s general public importance and because the department’s ability to bring future cases based on alleged gender identity discrimination could be hampered if it did not provide input on this case.

The judge also found that the department’s interest could not be adequately represented by N.H. and his mother. That’s because the department is asking for relief a private party can’t seek, such as requiring the district to submit revised policies related to transgender locker room use and pay a civil penalty to the state.

Defense sought dismissal

In addition to granting the Department of Human Rights’ motion to intervene, Jasper denied a motion by the school district to dismiss all claims.

Anoka-Hennepin argued the case should be dismissed because of legal precedent, no legal cause for N.H. to sue, an inability for N.H. to collect damages and the fact that the student is no longer enrolled in the district.

The district argued that the Minnesota Supreme Court had established that an employer may designate employee restrooms using biological gender without it being considered discrimination, based on a 2001 lawsuit called Goins v. West Group.

The judge disagreed, stating that Goins v. West Group does not apply to this case because it involves a school district, which has legal obligations under a different provision of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The school district pushed further for dismissal by arguing private individuals have no legal ability to sue for violations of equal protection or due process under the state constitution, but Jasper rejected the argument.

“The School Board would have the Court find that N.H.’s rights to equal protection and due process, conferred on him by our state constitution, cannot be legally protected through judicial action if those rights are violated,” Jasper wrote. “This argument is contrary to logic and case law.”

The Anoka-Hennepin School District also argued there were no remedies available and that the case is moot anyway because the student is no longer enrolled in the district.

Jasper conceded the district was partially correct about available remedies, because a private citizen can’t sue for damages against a government entity without the Supreme Court allowing it. However, an individual can seek an injunction against a government entity to cease unconstitutional behavior, according to the filing.

Jasper rejected the moot point argument, saying the case has a larger impact and is of public importance.

“Anyone who has read the newspaper; watched the news or used social media within the last five years cannot dispute the fact that the use of bathrooms and changing facilities by transgender individuals has been hotly debated and is an important policy decision for businesses and government,” she wrote. “Any argument that this issue is not of public importance is disingenuous and can only be made if one completely ignores current events and, like the proverbial ostrich, has its head buried in the sand.”

A strict standard

In her Aug. 5 order Jasper established using the strict scrutiny rule for N.H.’s claims that the district violated his equal protection rights. To pass the test of strict scrutiny, the government action in question must be narrowly tailored and reasonably necessary to further a compelling governmental interest.

Calling it the “most exacting standard of equal protection review,” Jasper wrote that strict scrutiny is used in cases involving a suspect class or a fundamental right. She further argued that the state Supreme Court established that a law targets a suspect class when it disadvantages an identifiable group with a history of purposeful, unequal treatment or political powerlessness.

District response

Asked for comment regarding Jasper’s order, the school district sent the following statement via email:

“Anoka-Hennepin Schools is committed to providing a safe and respectful learning environment, consistent with state and federal law. The approach extends to the education of all students and families, including transgender and gender nonconforming students and their families.

“Transgender students’ use of restrooms and locker rooms has been determined on a case-by- case basis in consultation with school building administrators, the Title IX coordinator, and superintendent with guidance from the National School Boards Association and the Minnesota School Boards Association. The goal is to ensure that every student feels safe and comfortable, and has an equal opportunity to participate in physical education classes and sports.

“Information regarding individual students is considered private student data; the district is not allowed to comment on such information.”

History of the case

Jasper’s order is the most recent development in a lawsuit brought in February by the mother of N.H. The plaintiffs alleged that the district discriminated against the student when it banned him from the boys locker room.

In 2016 the School Board told the student he couldn’t use the locker room, but that decision was quickly reversed, according to court documents.

That summer the district built a separate enhanced privacy facility in Coon Rapids High School. Through the remainder of 2016 and 2017 the student was hospitalized for mental health and continued to push back against the decision, according to court documents.

Eventually the boy began using the facility under protest so as to finish his physical education requirements before he was ultimately transferred out of the district, according to court documents.

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