Progress for Anoka-Hennepin School District 5 years after settlement

Staff Writer
Since 2013, I have primarily covered the Anoka-Hennepin and Spring Lake Park school districts as well as the city of Spring Lake Park for ABC Newspapers.

After six students and former students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District came forward with allegations of sex-based harassment and discrimination in the district, a settlement was reached through a 60-page consent decree.

Then Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson, right, and School Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann address the media after filing a consent decree with the United States Departments of Justice and Education and six student and former student plaintiffs in March 2012. The consent decree expired this year. File photo
Then Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson, right, and School Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann address the media after filing a consent decree with the United States Departments of Justice and Education and six student and former student plaintiffs in March 2012. The consent decree expired this year. File photo

The agreement was to be in place five years, and the clock ran out earlier this spring.

The consent decree officially expired March 6, 2017, but work to create a safe and welcoming environment will continue, Anoka-Hennepin School District administrators insist.

“Our mission was always to provide a safe and welcoming environment for both students and staff,” said Paul Cady, district general counsel. “That was prior to the government coming in with a consent decree and that continues today. The consent decree just added certain monitoring and reporting requirements.”

The district has been in close contact with the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education – Office for Civil Rights since the consent decree went into effect in 2012. Both departments have monitored Anoka-Hennepin’s implementation of requirements laid out in the consent decree.

“As a result of this hard work and commitment, the district took great strides to create a safer, more inclusive learning environment for its nearly 40,000 students,” a Department of Justice spokesperson said in a statement.

The consent decree bound the district to retain an equity consultant to review all district policies and procedures related to harassment; hire a Title IX/equity coordinator and mental health consultant; expand the district’s anti-bullying survey, in place since 2004; bolster the membership of a harassment-prevention task force; and more.

“The consent decree was really a blueprint for where we wanted to go anyway,” School Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann said. “I’m very happy to say that we walked through that, and I think we’re in a lot better place with the work that we’ve done than when we started. I think it’s been positive.”

Kyrstin Schuette, one of the six student plaintiffs involved in the lawsuits brought against the district in 2011, then identified as Jane Doe, said she believes progress has been made in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

“People are always going to want more progress until we’re at a point where everyone’s treated equally and fairly,” she said. “To the school district’s credit, they’ve come a long way, but I don’t think they’ve come far enough.”

Schuette dropped out of Anoka High School during her senior year after being bullied relentlessly.

After she was outed as a lesbian during a choir trip her sophomore year, Schuette faced verbal abuse and physical violence, often in front of school staff, but she found no relief after reporting incidents to staff, according to the civil complaint.

“It always turned into sort of a victim-blaming situation,” Schuette said.

Shortly after dropping out of school, she attempted to kill herself.

In recovery, Schuette met other LGBT youth who were being bullied and felt called to do something. She became connected with the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights, and following a federal investigation of the school district that began in 2010, a lawsuit was born.

As part of the settlement achieved through the consent decree, the district’s insurance carrier agreed to pay a total of $270,000 to the student plaintiffs.

Despite the financial settlement, the district has never admitted to any wrongdoing and maintains that staff responded to incidents appropriately.

Jennifer Cherry, hired as the district’s Title IX/equity coordinator in 2012, has tagged along as the superintendent meets with students at each secondary school in the district.

Qualitative data suggests that “students are feeling more accepted and more likely to stand up for one another for various differences,” Cherry said.

The district has created a new classification to better track sexual orientation-based harassment in the district since Cherry has been employed.

The anti-bullying survey, administered to fourth-, sixth-, eighth- and 10th-grade students annually in the fall, shows that a majority of students have never been bullied, but bullying is a reality for many students. In 2015, 46 percent of students surveyed had been the target of mean words, name-calling or teasing. Physical bullying, including hitting and pushing, was something 34 percent of students endured at least once.

Good news: The number of students responding to bullying by telling an adult at school has been on the rise. In 2012, the response was up 8 percentage points from 2010 (before the consent decree, the survey was administered every other year), and in 2015, the response made additional gains with one-fourth of respondents who had been bullied saying they told an adult at school. In the last five years, training for students and staff on the topic of bullying and harassment has been strengthened.

The district, in partnership with CLIMB Theatre, developed its own annual online training on eliminating bullying and harassment.

The training won’t disappear, but it might be altered now that the consent decree has lapsed.

For several years, staff has requested that future trainings elaborate on specific topics within the broader scope of bullying and harassment, but “we had to continue to maintain the training as-is,” Cherry said. “When you’re in a five-year agreement, it’s hard to be nimble.”

Though the Anti-Bullying/Anti-Harassment Leadership Team will continue to meet, the fate of the Anti-Bullying/Anti-Harrassment Task Force – made up of students, parents, district staff and other community members – is up in the air.

“That group had a very specific charge,” Cherry said.

The task force will make its fifth report to the School Board in June, and the board will determine whether the group will continue to meet, according to Cherry.

Perhaps the largest change following the expiration of the consent decree is a drastic reduction in the number of reports being passed along to the federal government.

“Both the state and the U.S. government on occasion do ask for annual reports that have basic data, but not to the depth and detail that we did (submit) under the consent decree,” Cady said.

Most efforts brought about under the consent decree will continue as the district finishes out the school year, moves into the next and beyond.

“I think the five-year partnership with the government really strengthened our anti-bullying, anti-harassment programs, policies and procedures,” Cady said.

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