By David Bailey
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Minnesota's biggest public school district has agreed to settle a federal lawsuit with six current and former students awarding them $270,000 after finding they were subjected to slurs, threats and attacks for their real or perceived sexual orientation as gays or lesbians.
The settlement reached with the students and the U.S. Justice and Education Departments, was approved by the Anoka-Hennepin School District board on Monday and must be approved by a federal judge, officials said.
Under its terms, the students split $270,000 and the district will be subject to federal oversight for five years.
"Harassment by or against students in schools is unacceptable, and not a 'rite of passage' to be endured by anyone," Thomas Perez, assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.
Superintendent Dennis Carlson said the board's anti-bullying and harassment policy was clear, but the five-year oversight would significantly strengthen its programs. He also said the district had made progress in teacher training and other areas.
"Our gay students deserve to feel safe and be safe -- just like everyone else in our public schools," Carlson said in a statement.
The settlement combined a Justice Department investigation into student harassment launched in November 2010 and the lawsuit filed by the students or former students last year.
The students said they were subjected to years of pervasive bullying. It included near daily anti-gay slurs to reports of being urinated on, stabbed in the neck with pencils, choked or shoved into walls or lockers with little action taken by the district.
The agreement requires the district to retain an expert to review its harassment policies and develop a plan to prevent student-on-student harassment at its middle and high schools. It also requires the district to improve training of faculty and staff and improve records maintenance on allegations.
The district has about 39,000 students across 13 suburbs north of Minneapolis and St. Paul, including six middle schools, five high schools, plus alternative sites.
The district also has agreed to hire or appoint a mental health expert to review its practices in aiding students who are harassed or at risk of depression, anxiety, self-injurious behavior, suicide or other problems.
One student involved in the lawsuit had attempted suicide and the suit said at least four gay or lesbian students had killed themselves from November 2009 to July 2010.
School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said the monetary settlement was negotiated by the district's insurer and the district believed its staff had acted appropriately. He said the mediation "likely saved the district millions of dollars and many years of ongoing litigation."
(Editing by Tim Gaynor)