Obama administration takes ‘unprecedented’ action against bullying in Minn. district
A settlement between a Minnesota school district and the federal government over anti-LGBT bullying is being hailed as “unprecedented” and a model for school districts nationwide. The move by the federal government to intervene in the Anoka-Hennepin School District is part of a more aggressive stance against bullying by the Obama administration, a stance that started late in the Clinton administration but languished under Bush.
“Where the [federal government] is being most aggressive is on a line of legal analysis which really focuses on sex-based discrimination,” said Kate Kendall, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
NCLR, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, represented six students who sued the Anoka-Hennepin School District for failing to protect LGBT students from bullying, discrimination and harassment.
In several cases in the last two years, including Anoka-Hennepin, the DOJ and DOE have been working a legal angle rarely used in cases of discrimination against gay and lesbian students. Federal nondiscrimination and civil rights laws do not cover sexual orientation, so lawsuits against schools have been a difficult option even for students with no other recourse.
As in the case of Anoka-Hennepin, the DOJ asserted that anti-LGBT bullying — and allegations of the school district’s failure to address such bullying — constituted sex-based discrimination under the Title IX Equal Opportunity in Education Act. Title IX says, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
The Department of Justice and the Department of Education are both charged with enforcing Title IX and, in the Minnesota case, the DOJ intervened in the lawsuit, putting the full weight of the federal government behind it.
“Courts and researchers are really understanding that the discrimination targeted at lesbians and gay men is rooted in gender nonconforming behavior,” she said. For instance, that lesbians date women instead of men is an example of that nonconformity and the gender of students’ romantic partners is often the target. That nonconformity can also extend to appearance and mannerisms, and self identification as a gay or lesbian student.
The strategy to use Title IX’s prohibitions against sex-based discrimination to protect gay and lesbian students began during the later years of the administration of President Clinton.
In 1997, the Clinton administration’s Education Department released guidelines announcing that harassment of gay and lesbian students, especially when it involved sexual harassment, would be a violation of Title IX.
In 1998, in Fayetteville, Ark., the federal government first applied that legal theory to a case where a student was being relentlessly harassed and physically assaulted. William Wagner’s mother filed a complaint with the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that the school district did little to intervene on Wagner’s behalf. DOE investigated the claim under Title IX sex-based harassment and found that the school district was not complying with anti-discrimination laws.
Following DOE’s decision, the district implemented anti-bullying training for school staff.
A change in leadership in 2001 meant that a newer and much more conservative federal government was reluctant to apply Title IX to investigate anti-LGBT discrimination in the nation’s schools.
It wouldn’t be until 2010 that the federal government would again look into such cases.
A Jan. 2010 case in New York exemplified the renewed legal tactic being employed by the DOJ. A teen in Mohawk, NY, was relentlessly harassed for being gay and filed suit against his school district. The DOJ then joined the suit and the district settled the suit with a modest payment to the student and a promise by the district to step up its anti-bullying training for school staff.
“It’s a significant and welcomed returned presence by the Department of Justice to these issues,” Lambda Legal’s Hayley Gorenberg told Main Justice at the time. “There were before the Bush administration committees as well as individuals who had done significant work towards the protection of LGBT people and their civil rights, and for years that has just laid fallow, and those efforts have been dormant. It is really exciting to see them come back to life, and this is an example.”
Kendall said that efforts to combat stigma have increased in Obama administration agencies across the board in the last few years.
“They will aggressively attempt to combat or ameliorate that stigma,” she said. “We’ve seen it in recent policies such as the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the administrative rulings on housing discrimination against LGBT people.”
That housing decision went into effect two weeks ago and makes it illegal for anyone receiving funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“In the schools context, the position of the administration has been about eliminating discrimination and stigma,” said Kendall.
And nowhere is that more evident than in the agreement between Anoka-Hennepin School District and the DOJ.
“To our knowledge, this is unprecedented in its scope, in its detail, in its rigor,” Kendall said.
In a conference call to reporters on Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of DOJ, Thomas Perez, said, “This administration is committed to combating harassment and bullying. Where we see barriers to educational opportunities, we work aggressively to break down those barriers.”
He added that the Anoka Hennepin agreement would be “a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform that will enhance the district’s policies, training and other efforts to ensure that every student in the district is free from sex-based harassment.”
Greg Brooker, who oversees the civil division at the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota, told the Star Tribune, “This is the most comprehensive and detailed school harassment agreement in the history of the Department of Justice.”
The agreement ensures that the district will update its bullying and harassment programs through the use of an anti-bullying task force. It will train teachers, staff, and students on bullying prevention, and it will hire a range of staff and consultants in the mental health and anti-discrimination fields.
And the Departments of Justice and Education will be monitoring compliance by the district for five years.
Already, civil rights groups are praising the model developed for Anoka Hennepin and plan to apply it nationwide.
“We will ensure it is a model used by districts across the country,” Kendall of NCLR said.
That sentiment was echoed by Abbe Land, executive director of the Trevor Project, a group that focuses on suicide prevention among LGBT youth.
“This week marks a historic paradigm shift in the way the federal government interacts with communities,” Land wrote in a column in the Huffington Post on Thursday. “The slow behemoth of federal justice moved at the breakneck pace of 16 months to create a blueprint for school safety that can be implemented nationwide, all in the interest of keeping children and youth safe, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.”
She added, “It is also a huge win in the fight to promote health and psychological well-being of youth at school, as it emphasizes ongoing availability of counseling for students and evaluation of anti-bullying measures from a mental health perspective.”
Fascinating. Of course the gender non conforming are always the leaders in gay/trans rights because they are out earlier/never in.
Really great message. I wish now the scolhos will decide to act on behalf of those being bullied or harassed to address the issue, problems and perpetrators, and I wish we’ll pay more attention to those at risk for depression and possible suicide. Too often parents, friends, scolhos miss the real signs (my sister and brother-in-law did) to find out the truth too late with a failed attempt or worse a successful one. These take years to happen and often giving obvious signs that counseling won’t change. We need to find avenues for those at risk to speak in private without fear of the often bad reactions by parents (ditto sister and brother-in-law). We have to change the environment of those at risk than just them, otherwise it doesn’t get better until they leave one way or the other. Any wonder why there are so many runaways? It sure solves that situation, but not them, only their environment.We need safe environments for those at risk, home, school, public, etc. Otherwise, it’s received as just another empty promise.Anyway, thanks for the link.