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Published March 05, 2012, 11:38 AM

Minnesota district to vote on lawsuits settlement

COON RAPIDS, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota's largest school district said Monday it has reached a tentative agreement to settle federal lawsuits over a policy that was criticized for failing to protect students from bullying.

COON RAPIDS, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota's largest school district said Monday it has reached a tentative agreement to settle federal lawsuits over a policy that was criticized for failing to protect students from bullying.

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board was to vote on the settlement at its board meeting Monday evening. The district said it wouldn't provide details ahead of the meeting.

Six current or former students sued the district last summer in a pair of lawsuits over a policy requiring staff to remain neutral when the topic of sexual orientation came up in the classroom. The plaintiffs claimed the policy was a gag order that prevented teachers from effectively protecting gay and lesbian students.

Apreill Hartsfield, a spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center that is representing plaintiffs, said she could not provide settlement details ahead of the meeting.

The neutrality policy came under fire after six students in the district committed suicide in less than two years. It was replaced last month with one that requires teachers to foster a respectful learning environment for all students. The new policy also says teachers shouldn't try to persuade students to adopt any particular viewpoint when contentious political, religious, social or economic issues come up.

The school board adopted the new policy after months of debate and several public hearings before impassioned audiences split between critics of the old policy and conservative parents and community members who believe homosexual conduct is immoral. Some defended the old policy as a way to prevent public schools from spreading what they consider "homosexual propaganda."

In the lawsuit, the six plaintiffs contended the district failed to protect them from severe bullying and harassment, including physical abuse and verbal slurs. Four of the plaintiffs identify themselves as gay or bisexual and two do not. They asked the court to block the policy, order effective protections including better training, and award them unspecified damages.

Court-ordered mediation had continued quietly under U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau since last August while the school board and the community struggled to come up with the new policy. The proposed settlement was reached between the district, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

The extent to which bullying and sexual orientation contributed to the six suicides was a matter of dispute. A parent of one of those students said her son was bullied for being gay, and gay advocacy groups say some of the other students were also bullied. Some but not all were identified by family or friends as gay or were perceived by their peers as gay.

The district initially said its internal investigation found no evidence that bullying contributed to any of the deaths, but it changed its anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in October 2010. In February, Superintendent Dennis Carlson acknowledged that bullying can be a factor in student suicides, but stopped short of saying it directly led to any of the six deaths. He also apologized for an initial statement seen by some as insensitive.

The district had bristled at the suggestion that it did not take a stand against harassment, arguing that its existing policies covered bullying because of sexual orientation, and that staff members already were required to intervene if they saw a student being bullied, regardless of the reason.

For the 2011-2012 school year, the district launched a new anti-bullying campaign that covered all students, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. The campaign called for staff to be in the halls and other places were students congregate, and for them to immediately stop bullying and report the perpetrators.

Anoka-Hennepin has about 39,000 students in more than 35 schools north of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

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