Anoka-Hennepin school officials on Monday introduced another alternative to the district's beleaguered Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, triggering a cautiously positive reaction from some at a public hearing that nevertheless reflected continuing division about controversial discussions in the classroom.

Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said he expects quick closure with a Feb. 13 vote on the newly introduced Respectful Learning Environment-Curriculum Policy.

The new proposal asks staffers to be neutral during class discussions of "controversial issues," including politics, religion, social or economic issues, but also "to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students regardless" of a number of factors, including sexual orientation.

It was kept under wraps until well into the Monday meeting, when members of the board, the community and media all received it.

About 17 people addressed the board. Advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students were positive in their first impressions of the latest proposal.

"I'm really glad that you've pointed out that all of our students are to be affirmed and welcomed and feel safe," said Robin Mavis, founder of the district's Gay Equity Team. "That is of primary concern."

About 20 students collectively thanked the board for its work to replace the neutrality policy. They and others said they had been upset by the tone of a Jan. 9 meeting at which members of the Parents Action League demanded access to so-called conversion therapies for GLBT students, as well as staff and equal resources to serve conservative and religious students.

"The environment created truly was hostile at the last meeting," said Rachel Hawley, an Anoka High School senior. "It was hard for us to come and listen to this, especially the students."

The latest proposal, the district's second try at replacing the current neutrality policy, did not satisfy all the concerns of those who oppose the current policy.

Dan Rebek cited the belief of some that women, poor people and people of color are inferior and that differences about scientific theories on evolution and climate change. "My concern is on any issue that anyone says is contentious, does that mean the curriculum has to give equal weight to any of those views?" he asked.

On the other end of the spectrum, several people backed the current policy as a way to keep discussions of sexuality out of schools.

Beth Lindquist said she believes teachers would be straying from their areas of licensure if they counseled students on sexual orientation. Schools, she said, should fight bullying by building communities. "Teaching school kids to be kind and respectful and caring about their peers is what should be implemented, and not repealing the sexual orientation policy," she said.

Rebecca Vahdat echoed the feelings of several conservative parents who fear students will be "bombarded" with propaganda from gay activists if the neutrality policy is repealed. "We send our children to school, not to have lessons on homosexuality woven into the classroom curriculum," she said. "This is an abuse of children under the camouflage of education."

The original neutrality policy is the subject of a civil rights suit that argues that the district did not adequately respond to students' complaints of persistent harassment.

In December, the board introduced its first effort at replacing the neutrality policy, the Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy, saying their purpose was only to address teachers' confusion around the current policy. That proposal was opposed by a broad spectrum of the community.

On one side, parents held that the loss of the neutrality policy could open a door to a "gay agenda" in the classroom. On the other, students, teachers and parents said wording vagaries would leave GLBT students and staff unable to discuss their own lives, which some deem "controversial."

Heidemann credited the district's professional staff with taking the school board's objectives and drafting a policy that is consistent with teaching practices.

Julie Blaha, the district's union president, said that the union still would prefer no policy but that the new wording is an improvement.

"It's clear that they took teachers' input very seriously," she said. "If we need to adopt a policy to go forward, then we're willing to go forward."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409