During 2009 and 2011, the Minnesota state health officials designated the Anoka-Hennepin County School District 11[AH] as a “suicide contagion area” as a result of nine students on the LGBTQ+ spectrum committed suicide from harassment and discrimination from both the student body and the AH staff.
The second largest school district in the state with approximately 38,000 students was then issued a consent decree when six plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in the US District Court for Minnesota “alleging severe peer-on-peer harassment and discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Minnesota human rights statutes.”
The US Department of Justice and Education launched an investigation into LGBTQ+ civil rights and shortly after, six students, with the help of lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a lawsuit overturning the so-called “Neutrality Policy” and issued a consent decree in March of 2012.
The consent decree, which has a year and a half before it expires, orders the school district to put in place a comprehensive plan to address discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation and to appoint an “expert consultant” to review the school districts policies and procedures surrounding the treatment of students on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. This “experts” job is then to implement the policies and procedures to make sure they are compliant with Title IX.
From the ashes of the nine suicides rose the Parents Action League [PAL], founded by Barb Anderson, whose stated mission is, “ensure that our schools remain focused on core academics and that parental rights are respected and upheld in the school environment.”
It’s been more than four years since the consent decree was issued and with rumors that the district is trying to run out the clock on the decree. The “task force” that was put into place has been labeled a shell organization staffed mostly by relatives of Barb Anderson and current members of PAL. Once the decree runs out, there will be no more government oversight of the AH School District and it’s been predicted that it will be business as usual.
It was Barb Anderson’s PAL, Child Protection League and MN Family Council that proposed what is called the “Not Normal, Not Valid Policy” that stated, “…while respect be maintained toward all people, homosexuality will not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle and that district staff and their resources not advocate the homosexual lifestyle.”
Both PAL and Barb Anderson are listed on the Southern Poverty Law Centers list of known hate groups that adamantly opposed the “Respectful Learning Environment Policy” that was put into place. The new policy states, “…district staff shall affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of their race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex/gender, marital status, disability, status with regard to public assistance, sexual orientation, age, family care leave status or veteran status.”
The “Respectful Learning Environment Policy” replaced the “Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy,” also known as the “Neutrality Policy” which was basically a gag order on students and teachers from interfering with bullying, discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The policy is said to be the blame for the nine suicides.
At the time, The American Association of University Women (AAUW) issued a statement saying, “One of the most striking aspects of this case is that although the Anoka-Hennepin School District had a Title IX coordinator in place before the complaints were filed, the coordinator did not monitor or enforce Title IX issues outside the scope of athletics.”
Enter Jan Radder, co-writer and producer of the film “Normal Valid Lives” which just moved into pre-production after a successful ‘Seed & Spark’ crowd-funding campaign. “Normal Valid Lives” is a documentary that’s “about a brave group of people who fought back against lethal LGBTQ+ bullying, thus taking a giant step forward in the fight against bullying of all kinds.”
Jan Radder, a Minnesota Producer via Connecticut, knows about bullying and took a special interest in this case. “I was a kid who was horribly, horribly bullied in school.” Jan Radder tells Planet Transgender, “I tell this joke to people — you remember the kid who everyone made fun of at school? Yeah, people will say, understanding. “Well, that kid made fun of me,” I’ll reply. Which is funny, and a joke, but it’s also true. So when I hear stories about bullying, they immediately get my attention.”
Radder continues, “I first heard about the Anoka-Hennepin case in 2009 when news of the Alex Merrit case broke. That was where a high school student was bullied by two of his teachers for his perceived sexual orientation.” According to the StarTribune, Alex Merrit filed suit against the AH School District for harassment. The “Minnesota Department of Human Rights found probable cause that the teachers harassed Merritt, who is straight, because they thought he was gay,” and Merrit was awarded $25,000 in damages.
“Normal Valid Lives,” a phrase taken from parents protesting the protection of the LGBTQ+ student body during school board meetings, is a film that will bring attention to the school district showing the historic nature of the case. “One of the main things we want people to leave this story with is the idea that a group of determined people really can make a difference,” Radder emphasized, “And even though there’s still so much that needs to be done in AH and elsewhere, it’s still important to acknowledge the success that did happen. Because really, that’s the case with every social justice story — that after every victory, no matter how big or small, there’s still more to do, that each victory is just another step forward.”
Although the film won’t hit the indie circuit until 2017, Jan Radder is already getting resistance from the school district, the Parents Action League and the assigned “Task Force” saying that he is in the process of filing Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request forms for district emails and related school board video footage.
Since the case first broke, the state of Minnesota has passed HF 826 the “Safe and Supportive Schools Act,” or “The Anti-Bullying Bill” in 2014. In December of 2014 the Minnesota State High School League passed a transgender athlete policy allowing students to participate in the sport that closely identifies with their gender identity, and in 2015, the St. Paul School district passed a similar gender inclusion policy offering protection to the LGBTQ+ student body.
Sadly, all three of these policies and bills came under fire in the 2015 state legislature session, but were defeated. Republican, the PAL, the Minnesota Family Council and the Child Protection League has begun to fund raise for the repeal of these laws and policies for the 2016 session. Republicans will also attempt to introduce a “Religious Freedom Act” legislation, similar to that passed in Indiana, allowing businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Jan Radder concludes, “…even though there’s still so much that needs to be done in AH and elsewhere, it’s still important to acknowledge the success that did happen. Because really, that’s the case with every social justice story — that after every victory, no matter how big or small, there’s still more to do, that each victory is just another step forward.