Diane Cleveland said “there’s no joy left in my life”

Diane Cleveland said “there’s no joy left in my life,” while Jodi Merritt, the student’s mother, rejected accusations that the story had been made up.

Emotions ran high Monday as two women at the center of a high school harassment case spoke up about the allegations that, during the 2007-08 school year, Cleveland and fellow teacher Walter Filson repeatedly harassed Merritt because they thought he was gay. The Anoka-Hennepin district paid Merritt’s family $25,000 this summer after the Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigated the case, but it now appears possible the fight will head to court.

Cleveland’s attorney, Phil Villaume, said Monday that they’re considering legal action against the rights department for violating Cleveland’s privacy by disclosing her identity. Merritt’s attorney, Jeff Anderson, said they “haven’t really formulated a plan,” but he considers recent statements by the teachers “false, defamatory, slanderous, and actionable.”

During an interview Monday, Cleveland said, “This has taken its toll,” after denying all of Alex Merritt’s allegations. Speaking in Villaume’s Bloomington office, she said, “My kids and my family and my husband have been through hell. I don’t leave my house too often. … I don’t sleep well, I have nightmares, I don’t eat. I don’t do any of the things I used to do, there’s no joy left in my life. It’s been miserable.”

Jodi Merritt, who held a news conference at her attorney’s office to respond to a recently released letter about the episode, said that, because of what Cleveland is going through, “Maybe she will realize what she put Alex through.”

In the letter, seven of Filson’s former students said Alex Merritt accused the teachers of harassing him only because one of them reported Merritt after overhearing him claim he had a gun in school. The letter said Merritt “went around saying he was going to get that teacher fired for sending him” to the office.

At least two of the seven students who signed the letter graduated in 2005 and were not in Filson’s class with Merritt.

In the interview Monday, Cleveland said that in January 2008, her class was waiting by the door for the bell to ring when the school’s in-house police officer overheard Merritt and a few other students talking about bringing a gun to school. Cleveland said that the officer told her about the comments, which she was required by law to report to school authorities.

“I popped my head in the door of the assistant principal,” she said, telling him about what the officer overheard. “And that was the last I ever heard of it.”

District spokeswoman Mary Olson said Monday that school officials heard about a “vague rumor of a group of kids talking about a gun” but that the district could never substantiate it and nobody was disciplined.

Also Monday, Merritt’s attorney Anderson said, “Alex never had a gun, and never had a disciplinary problem in school.”

Cleveland said that a few days after she spoke to the assistant principal, she learned of the allegations that she was harassing Merritt. “I was sick and disgusted because I knew it wasn’t true,” she said Monday, adding that she had no idea, and didn’t care, whether he was gay.

The teachers taught Merritt at the district’s “Secondary Technical Education Program,” or STEP.

The district investigated after the Merritts complained and interviewed several of Alex’s classmates.

“Each student independently corroborated [Alex’s] recounting of the specific examples of Ms. Cleveland’s comments, jokes and innuendo,” wrote DeAnn LaValle, the district’s director of employee services at the time.

According to the subsequent investigation by the state Department of Human Rights, the teachers repeatedly harassed and teased Merritt, who is not gay. The inquiry said that when Merritt proposed doing a report on Benjamin Franklin, Cleveland said Merritt had a “thing for older men.” Filson said Merritt “liked to wear women’s clothing.”

‘I was railroaded’

On Monday, Cleveland vehemently denied the allegations in the investigations conducted by the district and the rights department. “I was railroaded,” she said. When she told district officials that she believed she was being retaliated against, they said it was “irrelevant,” she said.

“The insinuation that I’m homophobic, that I’m a bigot, bothers me to no end,” she said.

The students who defended Filson said in their letter that “We don’t want to see Mr. Filson get fired or quit. He is an amazing teacher who has made a big difference in many of his student’s[sic] lives. He cares about all of his students and treats them all equally with respect.”

‘He chose to speak up’

At her news conference, Jodi Merritt rejected the suggestion that her son made up the harassment allegations.

“We moved 20 miles away” because of the harassment, she said, speaking on behalf of her son, who recently joined the U.S. Army and is not in Minnesota. “The teachers should have been removed, not the victim.”

She said her son would come home from school and tell her what teachers had said that day. She told him she wanted to say something to district officials but “he kept saying, ‘Don’t do it, Mom, it’s going to get worse.'”

Finally, she said, she’d had it and persuaded him to step forward. “It’s not a matter of what your preference is, it was wrong what they did,” she said.

Cleveland and Filson are both on voluntary unpaid leave from the district. At Monday’s news conference, Merritt and Anderson called for them to be fired.

“My job is to teach,” Cleveland said of her decision to stay away from the classroom. “I made a decision to step back. Those kids are there to learn, and those teachers need to do their jobs. If my being there, or the other teacher being there, is going to hinder that, I just need to take a step back and catch my breath.”

Emily Johns ? 612-673-7460