Minn. School District Accused of Abetting Anti-Gay Harassment

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday August 26, 2009

The case of two Minnesota high school teachers who allegedly humiliated a student perceived to be gay with anti-gay comments and jokes in front of the entire case more or less came to an end when the Anoka-Hennepin school district paid out $25,000 in a settlement with the student's family.

But one newspaper columnist, Dwight Hobbes of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, gave the story a fiery coda with an Aug. 25 op-ed piece that excoriated the school district, the instructors, and the high school's administration.

Hobbes wrote that by declining to punish either instructor meaningfully, publicly admit to having violated state human rights laws, or even allow sensitivity classes at their school, the district had "accord[ed anti-gay] conduct its all-but-official approval.

"The district will get away with disregarding the humanity of student Alex Merritt--indeed, sticking up for teachers Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson, who actively subjected the kid to spiteful abuse for supposedly being gay," Hobbes continued.

"At the Secondary Technical Education Program, Cleveland and Filson time and time again picked on the high-schooler--right in class--until, as the butt of jokes and the target of death threats, he was so miserable he transferred out and graduated somewhere else," continued Hobbes.

"His mother filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights."

As reported at EDGE on Aug. 14, though the school district denied wrongdoing, an investigation launched by the Minnesota Dept. of Human Rights determined that "jokes, comments and innuendos led to a hostile, abusive environment."

The results of the investigation were reported in a press release issued by GLBT youth advocacy group the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

GLSEN's executive director, Eliza Byard, called the teachers' reported conduct toward the student "horrific."

Alex Merritt--who says that he is not gay, but who evidently was perceived to be gay--was reportedly subjected to public and humiliating comments made by teacher Diane Cleveland, who allegedly made jokes about the student's perceived sexuality in front of the class.

Among other allegations, Cleveland reportedly remarked that the student had a "thing for older men" when the student handed in a report about Benjamin Franklin, and joked during a screening of a movie in which a bathing suit scene took place that the sight of a scantily clad young woman on screen would not mean anything to the student. "It's OK if [Alex] watches this, because he isn't into that sort of thing anyway," Cleveland reportedly said, allegedly adding, "maybe if it was a guy."

Hobbes reported that Merritt had Cleveland's class just prior to lunch, after which he had a class with Walker Filson, who is the other instructor who allegedly subject Merritt to ongoing and public humiliation.

Filson reportedly told students searching for participants for a fashion show to "Take [Alex] because he enjoys wearing women's clothes."

Filson allegedly added, "He would love to be in the show."

Byard spoke out against teachers serving as role models for hate. "Teachers should be working to stop students from these types of hateful behaviors not encouraging them by modeling the behavior.

"That the school allegedly allowed harassment by students to continue even after it was made aware of the teachers' behavior is unthinkable," Byard continued.

"We can only hope that the school district will do everything it can to ensure that no other student will ever have to go through the dehumanizing harassment this student suffered."

Added Byard, "Schools have a legal obligation to make sure their students have access to an education, and ignoring or encouraging anti-gay behavior deprives students of their right to an education."

Noted the GLSEN release, "Homophobic comments by teachers are, sadly, quite common.

"Nearly two-thirds (63%) of LGBT students said they had heard such remarks from teachers or other school staff, according to GLSEN's 2007 National School Climate Survey on the experiences of LGBT students in school," the release continued.

The release reported that, "A Minnesota research brief released in June using data from the National School Climate Survey found that 87% of Minnesota LGBT students experienced verbal harassment in school because of their sexual orientation, 41% experienced physical harassment and 14% experienced physical assault."

The brief also noted a lack of safe schools policies and resources for GLBT youth, including gay-straight alliance clubs (GSAs).

The GLSEN release observed that a number of similar cases nationwide have been settled in favor of harassed GLBT youth.

"Fifteen Expensive Reasons, a document from the National Center for Lesbian Rights and GLSEN, highlights 15 such cases," the release noted.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune covered the story in an Aug. 13 article, offering further quotes attributed to Cleveland and Filson.

The newspaper account reported that Clevelend allegedly commented that Merritt's "fence swings both ways," whereas Filson also allegedly made a remark about the boy liking older men when the student decided to write a paper about Abraham Lincoln.

The similarity between the insults allegedly dealt out by the instructors was explained, Hobbes indicated, by Cleveland and Filson conferring over the insults that Cleveland had leveled at Merritt, with Filson then allegedly picking up the thread and continuing the taunts before the entire class.

Wrote Hobbes, "A grown man and woman tag-teamed to mentally and emotionally abuse an adolescent who had to just sit there and take it."

The Star-Tribune reported that Cleveland was also alleged to have asked Merritt whether we would like another student perceived to be gay to accompany him to the restoom.

"Would you like to have [the other student] go with you so he can sit in the stall next to you and stomp his foot?" Cleveland is alleged to have asked the boy, evidently making a reference to former Idaho senator Larry Craig, who was arrested after allegedly approaching an undercover officer for gay sex in a men's room.

Craig reportedly tapped his foot as a signal to the officer, who was in the adjacent stall.

The article noted that although the state's Department of Human Rights had received thousands of complaints, only four involved harassment based on real or perceived sexual orientation in a school setting.

But the particulars of this case so incensed Hobbes that he gave the school dictrict, together with Cleveland, Filson, and the school's administration, a raking across the coals.

"Anoka-Hennepin bought its way out of the situation, paying the family $25,000," wrote Hobbes.

"No apology. No admission of wrongdoing at all. Just a two-day suspension for Cleveland, in response to which she presented her behind to be kissed by calling in sick and taking the week off."

Wrote Hobbes, "What the hell is wrong with those two sadists entrusted to instruct students, not hired to put one through hell just because they feel like it?

"What must it have been like each morning as Merritt got out of bed dreading the day ahead?"

Hobbes noted that, "Anoka-Hennepin School District rejected a GLBT advocacy group's offer to help train teachers to appropriately discuss sexual orientation with students.

"Associate Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld's rationalization: 'There are so many advocacy groups... you could have one for every social concern there is.'"

Hobbes dismissed that with a colorful exclamation of, "Horse feathers."

Continued Hobbes, "When two paid professionals behave so despicably, you've got damned good reason to pay attention to and do something about the problem.

"God knows how many other teachers at the school harbor similar animosity but are sneaky enough to keep it to themselves and maybe just take it out on students' grades, giving, say, a 'C' where a 'B' has been earned."

Continued Hobbes, "The fact is, Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson are blatantly phobic, and the district got them off the hook by cutting a check for $25,000, not a dime of which came out of either of their salaries."

Asked Hobbes, "What's the price tag next time on hounding a kid out of school?"

Hobbes went on to note that students who do identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, must have abosorbed a tough lesson from seeing such alleged abuse carried out in the classroom, with no consequences to the reported perpetrators.

That lesson to those kids, wrote Hobbes: "Hide who you are."

Hobbes dismissed the district's claims that no wrongdoing had taken place. "More horse feathers, or they wouldn't have paid.

"District administrators know damn good and well Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson stomped all over Alex Merritt's human rights and couldn't possibly care less."

Hobbes then invited the reader to imagine that Merritt had been black and suffered harassment at the hands of teachers.

"By the time the Urban League, NAACP, and every fire-breathing Black activist from here to hell and back got finished tearing the district a brand new one, believe me, a whole lot more would've been done."

However, Hobbes wrote, "GLBT activists... don't raise that kind of sand."

As a result, Hobbes predicted, Once newspapers quit carrying the story, [Anoka-Hennpin] won't even look back."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.