After years of accusations that it had failed to stop antigay bullying and a spate of student suicides, Minnesota's largest school district has agreed to sweeping changes designed to prevent harassment based on sexual orientation in a plan that federal officials call a national model.
The sprawling Anoka-Hennepin district, just north of Minneapolis, approved a legal agreement on Monday night with the federal government, which has been investigating the district for civil rights violations, and with six students who had sued the district on charges that they had suffered unchecked harassment. Under the agreement, which must be signed by a federal judge, the Departments of Justice and Education will monitor the district for five years.
The Minnesota district and its antibullying procedures became entwined in a nationwide debate over how homosexuality and gender diversity should be discussed in schools. Conservative Christian groups, while condemning bullying, argue that singling out sexual orientation for protections or teaching tolerance of same-sex marriage amounts to endorsing sinful practices.
In response to conflicting pressures, Anoka-Hennepin officials had devised an unusual policy, directing teachers to remain neutral on any questions involving sexual orientation. But some teachers said that this hampered their ability to support gay students and that the overall climate was still hostile.
Last month, the district rescinded the neutrality policy in favor of a requirement to "affirm the dignity and self-worth of students" regardless of race, sexual orientation, disabilities or other factors. In addition, according to the new agreement, the district will strengthen measures to prevent, detect and punish bullying based on gender or sexual orientation, hire a full-time "harassment-prevention" official, bolster mental health counseling and identify harassment "hot spots" on the campuses of middle and high schools. The six students who sued will receive a total payment of $270,000.
After the school board approved the agreement in a 5-to-1 vote, Dennis Carlson, the district superintendent, emphasized that the district had always fought bullying but called the decree "a positive statement of the continuing effort to ensure a welcoming environment for all students and families."
The Justice and Education Departments began investigating the district, which serves 39,000 students, in November 2010 after receiving complaints of an unsafe environment for gay, bisexual and transgender students. Separately, six students filed the lawsuit last July with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Federal officials, lawyers for the students and members of the school board met repeatedly over the last six months to hammer out the legal accord.
Federal officials praised the agreement Tuesday in a conference call in Washington. Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said he hoped the agreement would serve as a model for other schools.
"This is not about whether to advocate gay marriage," Mr. Perez said. "This is about safety."
But some conservative Christian parents in the district, who had formed the Parent's Action League to preserve the neutrality policy, called the agreement a "travesty."
The lawsuit was meant to "abolish conservative moral beliefs about homosexuality," Laurie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the league, told The Star Tribune of Minneapolis in an e-mail. "Making schools safe for 'gay' kids means indoctrinating impressionable, young minds with homosexual propaganda."
Federal officials and lawyers for the six students praised the students' courage in going public. At a news conference Tuesday, one student, Kyle Rooker, 15, briefly recounted how he was called names, shoved and at one point urinated on in a bathroom because of his flamboyant style.
He used to hide under the seat of the school bus to avoid going into school, he said. "I'm glad that kids coming up behind me won't have to suffer the way I did," he said, adding, "If we were all alike, this would be a very boring place."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .