A rash of suicides by gay teens in suburban Minnesota has thrust the Anoka-Hennepin School District into the national debate over anti-gay bullying.
The school board voted this week to settle a federal lawsuit, concluding a Department of Justice civil rights inquiry that began in late 2010. The district will pay $270,000 to six student plaintiffs who accused the district of creating a hostile, anti-gay environment.
Filed last summer, the suit accused school officials of not doing enough to protect gay students, or students perceived to be gay, from bullying.
The settlement will force the district to better protect students from bullying based on sexual orientation and to train staffers how to deal with sex-based harassment.
"Harassment by or against students in schools is unacceptable, and not a 'rite of passage' to be endured by anyone," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general in the civil rights division, said in a statement issued Monday.
The school board adopted the settlement, 5 to 1. The sole dissenter, Kathy Tinglestad, resigned in protest after the vote.
"This is the most comprehensive and detailed school agreement in the history of the Department of Justice," Greg Brooker, civil chief at the U.S. Attorney's Minnesota office, told the the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The departments of Justice and Education will monitor the district for the next five years to ensure compliance with the settlement's terms, which include retaining experts in sex-based harassment to review district procedures. School officials also will have to hire mental health experts to assist any victims of bullying.
The settlement came a month after the district rescinded a "neutrality policy."
Adopted in 2009, that policy instructed faculty and staff to avoid discussing homosexuality in schools. Critics said it allowed anti-gay bulling to continue unabated because educators and other staffers feared they might violate the policy by intervening. Supporters contended that eradicating the policy would promote homosexuality in schools.
In November 2010, the Justice and Education departments began investigating complaints that students were being bullied in middle and high schools in the district. The investigation came after nine suicides by students -- four of them gay.
Teen suicides became a topic of national discussion in 2010, when Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate allegedly webcast Clementi's intimate encounters with another man. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, 20, is on trial in New Jersey facing charges that include bias intimidation and invasion of privacy.
Several other teens, gay or perceived to be gay, committed suicide in several parts of the country that year, prompting sex-advice columnist Dan Savage to create the "It Gets Better" campaign. The effort rallied celebrities, lawmakers and hundreds of others to share stories and advice to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth.