Monday, August 17, 2009

The School of Hard Knocks

I have a lot of respect for teachers. But not for two public high school teachers in Minnesota. I'd like to see those two sitting in the corner of the teachers' lounge wearing dunce caps.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District probably won't go for that idea, but it does find itself paying $25,000 to the family of a high school junior thanks to the teachers' harassment of the student over his perceived sexual orientation.

And how they harassed. StarTribune.com, citing an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, reported several of social studies teacher Diane Cleveland's bon mots.

During a class in the 2007-2008 school year, Cleveland said the boy's "fence swings both ways." On another occasion she nimbly expanded her library of metaphors, allegedly saying the kid's "boat floats in a different direction than the rest of the guys in the class."

With a teacher like that, bullies are redundant.

When the junior asked to go to the bathroom, Cleveland supposedly responded, "Would you like to have [another allegedly gay student] go with you so he can sit in the stall next to you and stomp his foot?" Presumably this was a reference to Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and his busy bathroom feet, an incident then in the news that occurred at the Minneapolis airport, not far from this school district.

Only the most together young person could've come up with an appropriate response like, "Why yes, could you arrange that for me?" The average kid would've prayed to shrink to the size of an eraser.

The student wrote a report on Ben Franklin, prompting Cleveland allegedly to say, in front of the whole class, that he had a "thing for older men." When the boy chose Abraham Lincoln for a different assignment, another teacher, Walter Filson, allegedly said, "Since you like your men older . . . "

Did these two synchronize their witticisms in the teacher parking lot?

I feel confident the boy wouldn't have escaped the taunting if he'd chosen other historical figures. Had he reported on Abigail Adams or Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, Cleveland and Filson would've mocked him for being as female as they were.

Filson also quipped in front of other students that the kid "enjoys wearing women's clothes." At one point a student in Filson's class talked about a deer that had been molested—yes, really—and said, "Hey, Mr. Filson, doesn't that sound like something [the boy perceived to be gay] would do?" Filson reportedly agreed and laughed, in a heartwarming show of camaraderie between student and teacher.

Not surprisingly, the boy enduring this abuse transferred to another school 25 miles away. Cleveland and Filson should've been transferred to Pluto, but that's not what happened.

In 2008 the district responded to the harassment allegations against Cleveland by placing her on two-day unpaid suspension and briefly reassigning her. That reassignment included working on a social studies curriculum and reflecting on diversity in the classroom. But Cleveland called in sick four of the five days. I guess she came down with an acute case of resentment.

Soon afterward she was back at work. It's unknown whether Filson, a law enforcement teacher, received any discipline. Both remain teachers, so I hope the settlement money they cost the district embarrasses them into better behavior. If it will keep other kids safe from this kind of cruelty, I'm not above rooting for shame.

In February a sexual orientation curriculum for staff and students kicked in. I doubt Cleveland and Filson will learn much, but I have faith that other teachers will earn top grades and a smiley face.