Student suicides bring school district under scrutiny

Anoka-Hennipen under scrutiny

Minnesota’s largest school district is under federal investigation after allegations of bullying for reasons of sexual preference. Anoka-Hennipen’s district 11 admitted on Wednesday that the US departments of Justice and Education launched their investigation in November of 2010.

In a statement released to the press, the district said they’ve been having “collaborative discussions” with federal authorities to increase staff member and student training on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues (GLBT).

“We want to make positive improvements,” district spokesman Brett Johnson said. “Their goals and our goals are aligned: We want to keep kids safe.” Johnson went on to say that the district could not disclose details about the inquiry but released a memo dated April 25 that it had sent to CNN.

The districts lawyer, Paul Cady said that in the memo, the complaint that preceded the investigation concerned “allegations of harassment and discrimination in the Anoka-Hennepin School District based on sex, including peer-on-peer harassment based on not conforming to gender stereotypes.”

The memo said the federal authorities also heard about the district’s issues through various media reports “that students in the District who had recently committed suicide may have been the victims of incidents of harassment and bullying.

District leaders first began meeting with federal investigators on June 2nd, but no findings have been reached as of yet.

“Our investigation is ongoing,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa. She declined to say what complaint or complaints sparked the inquiry, says the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The Anoka-Hennepin district has 38,000 students and last fall a number of them committed suicide. GLBT advocates argued that some of the deaths stemmed from bullying because of real or perceived GLBT orientation. In December, the district said an investigation into six teen suicides had found no links to bullying.

This month, the school board was presented with petitions opposing the district’s two-year-old neutrality policy, which says teachers may address the subject in class, but must remain neutral. It is the only Minnesota district to have such a policy.

“How can you remain neutral about issues of oppression?” Jefferson Fietek, an Anoka teacher, asked Wednesday.

Fietek  is openly gay and was contacted by federal investigators this spring to talk about any harassment he’s seen or experienced. “At first, I thought I was the only one that saw a problem,” he said. “But when suddenly you have a federal investigator calling you, apparently someone else saw a problem too. It was a sense of relief that someone else is asking questions.”