Teachers in anti-gay harassment case ‘on voluntary leave’

Jessica Geen September 3, 2009
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Two Minnesota teachers who allegedly subjected a student to homophobic harassment have reportedly taken voluntary leave.

An investigation by the state’s Department of Human Rights found that Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson repeatedly made derogatory remarks about the boy’s perceived sexual orientation in class and allowed other students to make similar comments.

The student has been named as Alex Merrit, 18. He received a $25,000 settlement from the Anoka-Hennepin School District, although the school district denied violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

District officials have not commented on why Cleveland and Filson are on leave and whether it is unpaid. However, Cleveland’s lawyer Phil Villaume told the Pioneer Press she had taken a voluntary, unpaid leave.

The issue began at the start of the 2007-2008 school year.

Cleveland was found to made comments such as: “[His] fence swings both ways” and also that he had a “thing for older men”.

Filson allegedly said the student enjoyed wearing women’s clothes.

The Department of Human Rights report found that the school district had subjected the student to “conduct severe or pervasive enough to create an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive” on the basis of his perceived sexual orientation.

The school district denied violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act. It acknowledged the boy had been subject to comments and innuendo but said it had handled the situation adequately.

Cleveland was temporarily suspended in January 2008 and it is not known whether Filson received any punishment. Both continue to work as teachers in the district.

Along with paying the settlement to Merrit’s family, the school district has agreed to review existing policies and to announce Minnesota Human Rights Day in its daily emails.

He has since transferred to another school 25 miles from his home.

The case has been condemned by Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Executive director Eliza Byard said: “The reports of what this student endured from his teachers are horrific. Teachers should be working to stop students from these types of hateful behaviors not encouraging them by modelling the behaviour.

“That the school allegedly allowed harassment by students to continue even after it was made aware of the teachers’ behavior is unthinkable. 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 dehumanising harassment this student suffered.”

Related topics: Americas, Employment

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