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Case of the Month: August 2009

Anoka-Hennepin school district pays $25,000 to settle charge that teachers harassed high school student because of his perceived sexual orientation

Case 51679, closed 7-2-09

Charging Party
Jodi Merritt on behalf of minor child
Andover, MN

Respondent
ISD #11
11299 Hanson Blvd. NW
Coon Rapids, MN 55433

The following information is a summary of the department's findings and contains excerpts from other public documents relevant to this case.

Jokes, comments and innuendos led to a hostile, abusive environment, department investigation finds

What the Charging Party Alleged

Beginning with the start of the 2007-2008 school year, a male high school student in the Anoka-Hennepin School District began to experience harassment from two of the respondent's teachers, who perceived that the student was gay. A female teacher singled him out on nearly a daily basis by making jokes, comments and innuendos about her perception of his sexual orientation. "[Minor child's] fence swings both ways," "[Minor child's] boat floats in a different direction than the rest of the guys in the class" and "Would you like to have [another allegedly gay student] go with you so he can sit in the stall next to you and stomp his foot?" were among the female teacher's comments. The female teacher made her comments in front of other students and allowed them to laugh, and would share her comments with a male teacher. The male teacher would repeat, add his own jokes, and allow other students in the class to joke about the boy's perceived sexual orientation.

The student and his mother reported the ongoing harassment to the school district in January 2008, and an investigation corroborated their allegations.  However, the two teachers incurred only minor consequences for their actions, and the student continued to be taunted by students in his school, as well as students from Andover High school. Ultimately the student was forced to transfer to a school 25 miles from home to escape the harassment.  In a charge filed with the Department of Human Rights, the parent alleged that the school district had engaged in discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation against her minor son.

What the Department’s Investigation Found

In answering the charge, the Anoka Hennepin school district acknowledged that the charging party's son had been subjected to regular comments, jokes and innuendo about his perceived sexual orientation, but maintained that the district had adequately responded to the situation. It also argued that the student's decision to transfer to another school outside the district was voluntary.

In its investigation, the Department of Human Rights determined that evidence was sufficient to establish that the charging party's son had been subjected to unwelcome harassment by two of his teachers, and that the conduct had been egregious enough to compel the student to withdraw from the situation by transferring to another school.

The investigation showed that the school district had subjected the student to "conduct severe or pervasive enough to create an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive" on the basis of his perceived sexual orientation, the department found.

The department noted that the school district's own investigation had identified witnesses who substantiated allegations that the respondent's teachers had made regular "gay" jokes in the classroom, and did nothing to stop subsequent "homo and gay jokes" by classmates, sometimes smiling and laughing after the students' comments. 

Among the alleged comments:

  • When the female teacher learned that the student was doing a report on Ben Franklin for her class, she made comments in front of the class that implied that the student had a "thing for older men";
  • When the female teacher's class was watching the 1989 film, Christmas Vacation, the female teacher covered the screen during a swimming pool/bathing suit scene and commented, "It's OK if [the student perceived to be gay] watches this because he isn't into that sort of thing anyway... maybe if it was a guy."
  • When another student presented a report in the male teacher's class regarding a deer that had been molested, a student said, "Hey, [male teacher], doesn't that sound like something [the student perceived to be gay] would do?" The male teacher allegedly agreed and laughed.
  • After students came to the male teacher's classroom seeking male participates for a fashion show, the male teacher stated, "Take [the student perceived to be gay] because he enjoys wearing woman's clothes... he would love to be in the show."

The student's mother had requested that her son be removed from respondent's teachers' classrooms on January 14, 2008 as a result of his continuing humiliation. However, despite the investigation corroborating the harassment, the male teacher remained in the classroom indefinitely and the female teacher remained in the classroom for a week and a half following the investigation. The female teacher was finally "reassigned" and given an alternative assignment on January 22, 2008 which included working "on social studies curriculum development and reflecting on equality and diversity in the classroom." However, she completed only one day of the re-assignment, calling in sick for the remainder of the week and returning to the classroom with the commencement of a new semester on January 28, 2008.

The department found that there was sufficient evidence to establish that the school district was liable for the charging party's son being subjected to discrimination in education on the basis of sexual orientation, in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. In a settlement negotiated with the Department of Human Rights, the Anoka-Hennepin school district (ISD #11) agreed:

  • To pay Jodi Merritt $25,000;
  • To review its existing policies or develop new policies addressing its obligations under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and submit those policies to the Commissioner of the Department of Human Rights for review and approval;
  • To submit training materials related to student harassment, its complaint process, and sexual orientation as a protected class for the department's approval;
  • To announce Minnesota Human Rights Day in its daily electronic mail to staff and on its web site, on the first Friday in December for three years.

The Anoka-Hennepin district denies that it violated the Minnesota Human Right Act (MHRA), and its settlement of this case does not constitute an admission of any liability of violating the MHRA or any other law, or of any wrongdoing.

The Department of Human Rights publishes information about selected cases and settlement agreements, including its "Case of the Month," as part of its mandate under the Human Rights Act to "educate to eliminate" discrimination. Settlement agreements do not constitute an admission of any liability, an admission of a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act or any other law, or an admission of wrongdoing by the respondents.

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