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Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez Speaks on Anoka-Hennepin Conference Call


United States

Good Morning. Joining me today is Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, and Greg Brooker, Civil Chief at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Minnesota. Greg and Russlynn have been great partners in this effort to enforce the civil rights of students to attend schools free from bullying and harassment.

Education is a great equalizer. Yet, students cannot learn if they are afraid to go to school. Students cannot learn if they are being harassed and threatened. Students cannot learn if they are not free to be themselves. Students cannot learn if they feel that school administrators can’t and don’t protect them.

Bullying cannot be a rite of passage in our nation’s schools. Instead, our schools must be safe and nurturing environments that promote learning and full participation by all students. As a parent of three students in public school, I realize how important it is for children to be free from fear so that they can learn and thrive in school every day.

This case is about ensuring equal educational opportunity for all students in the Anoka-Hennepin school District. The Departments of Justice and Education, together with six student plaintiffs and the Anoka-Hennepin School District, filed a proposed Consent Decree last night that resolves claims of sex-based harassment in middle and high schools in the district by creating a safe, nurturing learning environment for everyone. The departments investigated a complaint that the learning environment in the schools was unsafe and unwelcoming for students who did not conform to gender stereotypes. In Anoka-Hennepin, students were afraid to go to school because they were repeatedly harassed. Some students faced threats, physical violence, derogatory language and other forms of harassment on a daily basis. As a result, some students stopped attending school for periods of time, dropped out or contemplated or attempted suicide. Across the District, students lost their will to learn.

The consent decree follows an extensive joint investigation by the departments. Our attorneys interviewed over 60 individuals, including current and former students, parents, teachers and district staff and administrators, and reviewed 7,000 pages of documents.

The consent decree is 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. The consent decree will build on the district’s existing anti-harassment efforts to help to create an environment where all students feel safe in school, are free from harassment, and can be themselves.

Under the proposed consent decree the district will:

  • Retain an expert consultant in the area of sex-based harassment to review the district’s policies and procedures concerning harassment;
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive plan for preventing and addressing student-on-student sex-based harassment at the middle and high schools;
  • Enhance and improve its training of faculty, staff, and students on sex-based harassment;
  • Hire or appoint a Title IX Coordinator to ensure proper implementation of the district’s sex-based harassment policies and procedures and district compliance with Title IX;
  • Retain an expert consultant in the area of mental health to address the needs of students who are victims of harassment;
  • Improve its system for maintaining records of investigations and responding to allegations of harassment;
  • Conduct ongoing monitoring and evaluations of its anti-harassment efforts; and
  • Submit annual compliance reports to the departments.

The district has been very cooperative with our investigation and throughout our negotiations. The district has been taking steps to address the harassment and concerns about the learning environment in its schools. Last month, the district adopted a Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum policy, which sets forth the district’s commitment to affirm the dignity and self worth of all students regardless of their background. This was a very important step forward in the effort to establish a safe, inclusive and nurturing learning environment for all students. We will continue to work with the district to assist with implementation of the consent decree. We will monitor compliance with the consent decree for the next five years to sustain a culture change and promote a supportive learning environment. Culture changes takes time, but I am confident it is already happening in Anoka-Hennepin and will continue to happen.

Through our consent decree, it is our hope that Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota’s largest school district educating nearly 40,000 students in 37 schools, will become a model for other school districts in its efforts to address sex-based and other types of prohibited harassment.

I also want to thank the students and others who came forward in this case. Their courage and insights were invaluable. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” A group of courageous students have indeed changed the world. The decree explicitly provides for opportunities for student involvement and input into the district’s ongoing anti-harassment efforts.

This administration is committed to combating harassment and bullying. Where we see barriers to educational opportunities, we work aggressively to break down those barriers. In Tehachapi, Calif., following the death of Seth Walsh, a gay student who took his own life, we worked with Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights on an agreement with the school district to amend its policies and provide training to address and prevent sex-based harassment. At South Philadelphia High School, we engaged in a comprehensive consent decree to address the severe and pervasive harassment of Asian American students. And in Owatonna, Minn., we entered a settlement agreement to resolve an investigation into the racial and national origin harassment and disproportionate discipline of Somali-American students at Owatonna High School. Last year, the Department of Education produced a comprehensive guidance on bullying. We will use every tool in our law enforcement arsenal to ensure that all students have access to equal educational opportunity.

We look forward to working with the district to ensure that all its students are able to learn in a safe and supportive environment.

Let me now turn it over to Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education.

Updated September 17, 2014