Sixth student sues Anoka-Hennepin school district over gay bullying [UPDATE]

Categories: GLBT
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Samantha Johnson's is one of at least four suicides blamed on bullying.
The Anoka-Hennepin school district has been slapped with yet another lawsuit over gay bullying in its schools and its policy of "neutrality" on issues of homosexuality. The plaintiff, a 15-year-old former Jackson Middle School student, is being represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The new suit shares many of the same allegations of discrimination as the one filed by five district students in July. However, this particular complaint also names teachers and incidents in which they did not help the girl when she sought refuge from bullies.

Update: Anoka-Hennepin school district spokeswoman Mary Olson responds

According to the complaint, the student -- named only as E.R. -- came out as a lesbian to her mother when she was 12 years old. But the harassment didn't start until she transferred to the Anoka-Hennepin school district as an eighth grader.

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Justin Aaberg, one of the district students who committed suicide after gay bullying.
The complaint says that from her very first day of school in fall of 2010, other kids called her a "dyke" or a "he/she", and made comments such as, "You fucking faggot -- get out of our school." When standing in the girl's line at lunch, other students told her she didn't belong there. One boy even allegedly punched her in the stomach.

The suit goes on to describe incidents when teachers did not intervene on the student's behalf: When other girls told her she shouldn't be in the ladies locker room, rather than disciplining her tormentors, the teacher told her to change in a separate room. The complaint claims the associate principal Anita Udager did not inform the girl's mother she was being bullied, even though she complained to teachers about it constantly. Finally, it claims that not only were E.R.'s bullies never punished, she was punished instead:

By approximately January, school officials further stigmatized E.R. by instituting a requirement that E.R. walk through the hallways at a separate time from other students, accompanied by a paraprofessional. They also eventually prohibited her from eating lunch in the cafeteria with the other students. School officials made it clear that these steps were taken as disciplinary measures against E.R., and never suggested that these steps were intended to protect her from harassment. In April, school officials cut E.R.'s class schedule to a half day.

Read the entire lawsuit here.

"They increased and accelerated the stigma and made her a greater target," says Kate Kendell, executive director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The lawsuit blames harassment and teacher apathy on the climate created by the Anoka-Hennepin school district's "neutrality policy," which instructs teachers to remain "neutral" when issues about homosexuality come up in class. This is the same claim made by a lawsuit filed by five students in July, saying the policy is a "gag order" that prevents school staff from counseling distressed gay students, and is even being blamed for student suicides.

"It is very clear that the district's censorship policy -- which really operates as a way to stifle any conversation or discussion about LGBT contributions, issues, history -- is a key root cause of the harassment," says Kendell.

She says that this new suit will likely be combined with the other five students' claim, and handled together, in partnership with the Southern Poverty Law Center. She says their firm has heard from other students in the district, but isn't sure yet if more lawsuits are on the way.

No one was available from the district to comment yesterday afternoon, but when contacted about the initial lawsuit in July, district spokesperson Mary Olson told City Pages the district would defend itself in court. She also released a statement saying, in part, "The district takes strong exception to the outrageous media statement the district is not concerned about the safety of its students."

Update:

"We were told there would quite likely be other students participating in litigation. It was not a surprise to us," says Olson today. "We're continuing as we were before, looking into the situation, preparing."

Olson reiterated that the district investigated the first five students' cases and found that school staff acted properly. The same kind of in-house investigation will take place in E.R.'s case.

She says that because disciplinary action against students is private data, it can be "confusing" for victims and their families, and appear as though nothing was done.

"I don't know that everyone will agree that the action was appropriate," says Olson. "But it fit our policy. We responded properly in these situations."

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