As the Anoka-Hennepin School District considers scrapping its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, the move is being welcomed cautiously by those who say the so-called "neutrality policy" has not adequately protected gay students from bullying and has even made the problem worse.

The school board will take up a proposal on Monday to strike the policy in favor of a "Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy," which instructs teachers to withhold personal opinions from classroom discussions of hot topics. No vote will come before next month, and the debate may extend beyond that.

The current policy, adopted in 2009, says teachers are to remain neutral on issues of sexual orientation. It is the target of a suit filed this summer on behalf of six current and former students who say the district did inadequately responded to their complaints of persistent harassment based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation. The suit said, in part, that the policy has worked as a "gag policy," making teachers hesitant to step in when needed.

The new proposal was not in response to the lawsuit, district officials say. Rather, it was a direct consequence of persistent confusion among staff on how to implement the current policy, school board Vice Chairman John Hoffman said.

"Teachers asked for clarification," he said. "This really is to address their concerns."

The proposed policy does not mention sexual orientation, or any other issue, but says that sensitive topics must be "presented in an atmosphere free of bias and prejudice." The board crafted the wording over the past few months with help from the district's attorney, Paul Cady.

The district has taken several steps this year aimed at countering all types of bullying, including stepped-up staff training.

Reaction to the proposal

The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of two national groups filing the lawsuit on behalf of the six students, called the proposed policy "one important step forward in making the school district a more welcoming environment for all students." The center said it couldn't comment further, citing continuing mediation aimed at reaching a settlement in the suit.

Martha Pedersen, a family and consumer sciences teacher and the mentor for Champlin Park High School's Gay-Straight Alliance club, said her first reaction to word of the possible change was relief.

She added, however, that she hopes teachers will receive training to be completely sure how the policy should be applied.

"These changes are pointless if they don't train us," she said, and added that she's looking forward to positive change. "It would great to see our district become a positive role model on this topic, as opposed to the bad example all over the U.S. It seems like we've been used as the bad example of how not to do things."

Anoka High School English teacher Jon Plotz said his initial impression of the proposal has been cautiously positive.

"At first glance, it sounds good, but I don't know that I necessarily am going to continue thinking that," he said. "I don't feel comfortable endorsing something until I know how it's going to be used or implemented."

The Parents Action League, a community group that supports the neutrality policy, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Retired Anoka High School chemistry teacher John Ahlquist, who now has grandchildren in the district, encouraged the board in September to stand by the neutrality policy. On Thursday, he said he understands the difficulty of the topic, when parents want teachers to be influential adults.

"On the one hand I've always felt that it was unfortunate that I was unable to share my opinions about things that kids sometimes were genuinely interested in," he said. "The flip side is, would I want my grandchildren in a classroom with a teacher whom they respect training them and teaching them something I wholeheartedly disagree with? The answer is no, I don't want that. That's the tension in this whole thing of how do you handle controversial ideas in a public school classroom? I don't know if there is a right answer."

Other policies

Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, is the only local one to have a sexual orientation curriculum policy. But several others, including Minneapolis, Forest Lake, Wayzata, Centennial and Rosemount, have policies similar to the one being proposed, addressing controversial topics in classes.

Scott Johnson, the director of teaching and learning for Centennial Schools, said the policy is worthwhile.

"It helps frame for our teachers the expectations," he said. "Pro-actively, it makes sense to have a policy like this in place."

His school district, which borders Anoka-Hennepin, adopted its two-page policy in 1977. It says that teachers shouldn't avoid or raise an issue merely because it is controversial, but that the issue should be presented without leading students "to believe that a certain opinion is the only acceptable option."

Both Forest Lake and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school districts have policies advocating objectivity. As in Minneapolis and Wayzata, Rosemount says that bringing up controversial issues is essential to a democratic society, but also states that teachers should not indoctrinate students with their views.

Anoka-Hennepin School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said he hopes the new policy will help. "I think the more you clarify the expectations, the better off we all are," he said.

Paul Kelley, a math teacher and GSA adviser at Anoka High School, said he hopes the school board will allow time for public input before it acts on the proposed policy, and he expressed concern over how the district will define controversial issues.

Heidemann said that definition was left purposely murky. "Those topics could vary according to what's going on in society at the time," he said.

The district also plans to update language in its harassment policy to bring it in line with the state's model policy, which was updated in August. • 612-673-4409 • 612-673-4141