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Suit: Anoka-Hennepin Allowed Hostile Environment

CHAMPLIN, Minn. (WCCO) -- A lawsuit has been filed against the Anoka-Hennepin School District, alleging that the district has allowed an environment hostile toward students who are either gay or just perceived that way.

The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Faegre & Benson on behalf of five students who claim they were targets of harassment within the school district.

"The bullying of LGBT students is a severe nationwide problem, a problem that flourishes in part due to the inadequate response of school districts," said Mary Bauer, of Southern Poverty Law Center.

The suit is filed on behalf of students like 14-year-old Kyle Rooker. He said he's endured three straight years of escalating abuse in the classrooms and hallways of Anoka schools.

"Me and my mom are here today to insure no one else goes through what I went through," Rooker said during a press conference Thursday. "The last three years, the kids called me names, and shoved me into lockers, desks and walls, just because they say I'm different."

The lawsuit was announced just a day after it was revealed federal investigators have been looking into complaints of harassment and bullying at Anoka-Hennepin since last fall.

"We are disappointed that the district fails to see the serious harm this policy is causing its students," said the head attorney behind the lawsuit, Sam Wolfe. "School and district officials who are entrusted with the safety and education of all students continue to ignore, minimize, dismiss, and even blame victims for the abusive behavior of other students."

The suit cites claims of harassment reported by a number of students, including one who said he was picked on because he liked wearing colorful clothes and singing songs by female pop stars. According to the lawsuit, school staffers told him to stop wearing colorful clothing.

"One of our plaintiffs was told why don't you go kill yourself, in reference to some of the other LGBT suicides," Wolfe said.

The suit also says another student, who was subjected to anti-gay harassment for two years, sought help from staffers only to be told he should consider leaving school because they could not help him.

"There is something seriously wrong in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, and district officials know it," said Kate Kendell, executive director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "This epidemic of harassment -- unlike anything we've seen in neighboring districts -- is plainly fueled by the district's shameful and illegal policy singling out LGBT people and LGBT people alone for total exclusion from acknowledgement within the classroom."

In October, the district changed its anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies after six students committed suicide in the span of a year and a half. The district's own investigation found no evidence that bullying contributed to the deaths. But some family members and advocates disagreed.

Wolfe said the district's neutrality policy, which strictly limits the discussion of matters concerning sexual orientation, makes the bullying problem worse. He claims what was intended to prevent the promotion of any particular lifestyle, actually leads to more anti-gay bullying.

But that is something the district strongly denies.

"We don't feel it's a gag policy as characterized by some," District Spokesperson Mary Olson said. "It allows teachers to talk about homosexual issues, as long as it's age appropriate."

The lawsuit says the district's "gag policy" has prohibited staff members from offering support to GLBT students, or to even acknowledge their existence. The legal team behind the lawsuit claims that policy of neutrality led to an environment where in certain students' rights were violated.

And for the parents of those victimized, like Jeff Frei's son was, if the district can't help, they hope the courts will.

"No more -- enough is enough," Frei said.

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