No fast answers in Anoka-Hennepin neutrality policy debate

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 10, 2012 - 11:43 PM

Fractious debate underscores the minefield Anoka-Hennepin officials face in resolving disputed standard.

If the Anoka-Hennepin school board had hoped to lay to rest the district's embattled Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, Monday's fractious public hearing and its aftermath dispelled that notion.

From the time the board proposed a replacement for the so-called neutrality policy last month, members expected discussion to extend beyond the usual 30 days. On Tuesday, board President Tom Heidemann said that the proposed Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy will be on the agenda Jan. 23, but that he didn't yet know whether it will get a vote. Other members predicted the discussion could go much longer.

In any case, Heidemann said he believes it would be difficult to pass the current draft -- which says staff members may not advocate personal opinions on controversial topics -- through the six-member board.

"Can it be reworked in a way that would satisfy the criticisms that have been levied against it, or would it be better to stay with what we already have?" he asked.

"Or are there other options?"

Colleague Scott Wenzel said that if he had to decide today, he'd vote against the new policy. His preference would be an end to the current so-called neutrality policy, without a replacement.

"It's a lightning-rod policy and it will continue to be so," he said.

Widespread criticism

On Monday, Julie Blaha, president of the teachers union, said teachers support dropping the current policy but that they also oppose the new policy and want modifications to it, at a minimum. None of the other 33 people who addressed the board spoke in favor of the new proposal.

Moreover, the nature of the criticism reflected how contentious the issue is, with opponents breaking into two camps: Those on one side argued that the proposed policy would marginalize gay students and teachers, and muzzle those who seek to support them.

Those on the other side argued that discussions of sexuality and morality don't belong in school. Many criticized what they regard as the prospect of the "normalization" of those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

The Parents Action League did not respond Tuesday to a request for elaboration on its demands that the district provide resources for "students of faith, moral conviction, ex-homosexuals and ex-transgenders," as well as information linking homosexuality to sexually transmitted disease and about conversion therapies. The league's resolution also mentioned the possibility of litigation.

The neutrality policy already is at the center of a lawsuit, filed last summer on behalf of six current and former Anoka-Hennepin students who say the district did not adequately respond to allegations of persistent bullying based on sexual orientation. The suit alleges that the standard, which requires staff to remain neutral on issues involving sexual orientation, serves as a kind of "gag policy."

Officials say the draft policy, announced last month, was not motivated by the lawsuit.

Heidemann reiterated that point Tuesday.

"The Anoka-Hennepin school board is the only body that determines policy in Anoka-Hennepin," he said. "There will never be an outside group -- even through threat of a lawsuit -- that will change our policy. We will change it on our timeline, with involvement from our community, and using our standard process."

Sam Wolfe of the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the attorneys representing the students in the suit against the district, declined to comment Tuesday on policy developments. The parties in the lawsuit are in mediation and have been told not to comment in the media.

The center last month had called the proposed policy "one important step forward in making the school district a more welcoming environment for all students."

School board member John Hoffman said the board is in for the long haul. He said a solution might be found in changing the proposed policy, using suggestions from the teachers union, adapting the current neutrality policy or doing something else.

"What we tried to do here was create more clarity and direction," he said. "Clearly we haven't hit that mark yet, but we're going to stay here until we get it right."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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