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Teachers in Anti-Gay Harassment Case Take ’Voluntary Leave’

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Sep 2, 2009
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Two teachers who allegedly subjected a student to humiliating anti-gay comments and jokes have reportedly taken "voluntary leave."

Allegations of systematic harassment by Diane Cleveland, 39, and Walter Filson, 56, high school teachers for Minnesota’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, led to an investigation by the state’s Dept. of Human Rights. The investigation found that the student, 18-year-old Alex Merritt, had had his rights violated.

The teachers reportedly mocked Merritt for being gay, although Merritt says he is heterosexual. Merritt finally transferred to, and graduated from, a different school; both Cleveland and Filson continued with their teaching duties.

The school district denied any wrongdoing, but settled with Merritt’s family for $25,000. Cleveland was given a two-day suspension, but after one day called in sick, missing the rest of the week.

Among other allegations, Cleveland reportedly remarked that Merritt 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 young man, adding that "maybe if it was a guy" on screen the scene would be a cause for concern.

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

The executive director of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Eliza Byard, spoke out against the teachers’ alleged harassment of Merritt.

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

"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 a GLSEN press release on the story, "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.

An Aug. 25 column by Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder writer Dwight Hobbes excoriated the school district for the way the situation was handled.

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."

Hobbes wrote that the two teachers "tag teamed" by conferring about the taunts to which they subjected Merritt.

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?"

Added 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 absorbed 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."

Both Cleveland and Filson were reported to have taken leave in a Sept. 2 article at the Minnespolis-St. Paul StarTribune.

The article quoted Phil Villaume, attorney for Cleveland, as saying, "Our position is that she is taking an unpaid, voluntary leave of absence at her request."

Added Villaume, "This was done in the last week, and it was her decision and her decision alone."

The article said that Filson could not be reached for comment.

Next month, from Oct.18-24, this year’s Safe Schools Week will be observed, according to a posting at safeschoolsweek.org.

Safe Schools Week is meant to educate students, as well as school faculty and administration, about violence, harassment, and intimidation in schools, and the need to ensure that schools are safe and welcoming places of learning for all students.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

Comments

  • fern , 2009-09-03 01:41:40

    "What must it have been like each morning as Merritt got out of bed dreading the day ahead?" With teachers like that I ended up in reform school. They should suffer the same restrictions as those on the sex offenders list.


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