School district sets rules for discussing sexual orientation.
The Anoka-Hennepin school board's approval of a Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy last week was a long-anticipated break from the "neutrality policy" that had been a focus of controversy in the state's largest school district.
District officials have hailed the process of give-and-take that brought the final draft before the board, which voted 5-1 to adopt the new policy as a replacement to the three-year-old neutrality policy, formally the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy.
Detractors claimed the former policy, requiring teachers to remain neutral on issues of sexual orientation, helped create a climate that tolerated bullying and harassment of gay and lesbian students. Some teachers also said the former policy was confusing.
But it's clear, during the new policy's first days, that it also has generated questions and that the fallout from the controversy is far from over.
Here are some questions and answers prompted by the adoption of the new policy.
Q How will the new policy affect what teachers can say to students?
A The policy identifies political, religious, social and economic issues as "contentious" in a learning environment. It says teachers "shall not attempt ... to persuade students to adopt or reject any particular viewpoint with respect to these issues." School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said teachers can voice opinions relevant to course work, but they must do so in a way that opens discussion, rather than shutting it down by passing judgment on opposing viewpoints. The policy also requires teachers to present information "in an impartial, balanced and objective manner."
Q The Parents Action League supported the former policy. What was the basis of its opposition to scrapping it?
A Members of the league feared that any opening for teachers to express an opinion about sexual orientation would become an opportunity to promote homosexuality. In an e-mail after the board vote, PAL member Barb Anderson said of the neutrality policy: "Because it mentioned 'sexual orientation' specifically, [the policy] served as a boundary that teachers feared to cross. The fear of district backlash kept much of the pro-gay propaganda out of the classroom. Now that the boundary has been removed, it just might embolden gay activist teachers to introduce homosexual propaganda into the classroom -- something they have wanted to do all along -- especially through 'teachable moments.'"
Q The teachers union and the Gay Equity Team also raised concerns about the new policy. Were those resolved?
A Both organizations had said they favored eliminating the neutrality policy, with no replacement, and at minimum asked that changes be made to the wording of the new policy. School board members met with union representatives before the vote; both sides said they left the meeting feeling they were on the same page. The Gay Equity Team expressed concern that the requirement for a balanced approach might, in some cases, give "false equivalence" to opposing views regardless of the evidence. That concern and others were not addressed in the wording of the policy.
Q Is the controversy over?
A No. The district has another mediation session next month with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which sued last summer on behalf of six current and former students who said their complaints of persistent and severe bullying based on sexual orientation were not adequately addressed.
Though district officials have said the lawsuit was not the reason they dropped the neutrality policy, its repeal is a key demand, among others.
The district also is under an ongoing federal civil rights investigation, stemming from a student complaint in the fall of 2010. That investigation is ongoing, according to a Department of Justice spokeswoman.
In January, the Parents Action League issued a list of demands meant to balance the message if the neutrality policy was scrapped. The group also had threatened litigation, depending upon the district's response. The group's president, Laurie Thompson, said after Monday's vote that the group now hopes to hear a response to its demands. That will determine its next move.
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409