The Anoka-Hennepin teachers union said Friday that it agrees that the district's embattled "neutrality policy" on sexual orientation should be scrapped. But the union doesn't want it replaced with the policy now being debated by the school board -- or even any policy at all.
The union's first official position on the policies, to be formally presented Monday, complicates the school board's attempt to settle a months-long controversy that's plagued the state's largest school district. Now it's clear there will be no quick end.
"I was so hopeful this policy would address our needs," school board member Scott Wenzel said about the proposed replacement policy. "But it doesn't. It might actually put it in a worse light."
The neutrality policy, which has drawn nationwide attention and spurred a civil rights lawsuit, instructed teachers to remain neutral on issues of sexual orientation. Critics said it contributed to a climate of fear and bullying for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. So Dec. 12, the school board proposed trading the "neutrality policy," formally called the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, for a new one.
The problem, according to the teachers union, is that the proposed "Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy" instructs the teachers to withhold personal opinions from classroom discussions of hot topics. About 100 members of the 2,800 in the district responded to a survey about the issue and many of them said they think the policies should be scrapped altogether.
159 policies plus 1
"We already have 159 policies," union president Julie Blaha said. "Is another policy really necessary?"
If the school board prefers to trade out the "neutrality policy" with the controversial topics policy, Blaha said it needs to be revised before it's approved. She said some teachers take issue with the use of the word "controversial." They're concerned, she said, about how it will affect how they respond to gay or lesbian students or the issue of homosexuality, even though sexual orientation isn't mentioned in the policy.
"We need to be clear that our students' identities won't be an issue," she said. "We want them to value who they are. We need to draw the line between issues and identities."
She added that it's difficult to define what controversial topics include.
"Our job is to not tell our students what to think but to think deeply," she said. However, "we can't be these robots in the class without any thoughts or personality. There are times when [expressing opinions] makes sense."
About 15 union members met Wednesday and drafted a four-page position on the policies. On Monday, about 60 union members will vote on the union's position before presenting it to the school board. School board members will have their own discussion Monday night before voting on the policy Jan. 23.
Board chairman Tom Heidemann said that it's likely they'll keep the "controversial topics" policy, though the wording could still be amended.
"We want to listen to what people are saying," he said.
After the Jan. 23 vote, he said the school board will move on -- even though the community may not.
"I think it's clear through this process that there's no way we're going to make every constituent happy," Heidemann said. "There will be unrest and people probably will still have concerns. But I don't think there's any way around this. The controversy continues."
Staff writer Paul Levy contributed to this report. Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141