If the Anoka-Hennepin school board thought that its proposal to scrap the district's embattled ban on staff members expressing opinions about sexual orientation might ease controversy related to GLBT students, it learned otherwise Monday night.
About 60 people attended the first of two listening sessions before the board votes on the new policy. Blaine High School English teacher Kendrick Davies stood in the back of the crowded Coon Rapids hearing room wearing a rainbow scarf and holding a sign that read, "My identity is not controversial."
Some speakers warned against the proposed policy, which would allow broader discussion of "controversial issues." Community member Barb Anderson predicted that the new plan would result in "more homosexual propaganda flooding the classroom."
And some teachers said changing the "neutrality policy" still won't clear up the confusion they face about what is and isn't OK to talk with students about.
After months of debate over the policy, which some say has contributed to a climate of fear and bullying for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students, the district announced last week that it was considering replacing it. It wants to trade that policy -- formally known as the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy -- along with another one dealing with religious expression for a broader one it calls the Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy.
At the end of the hearing, at which 17 people spoke, Board Member Scott Wenzel took note of the depth of the criticism directed at the board.
"We've heard from both sides tonight," he said. "There's unhappiness on both sides. Maybe we're closer to compromise now. ... We're moving toward something that can ... clear up some confusion and create a safer school district for our students."
The new policy would declare that the study of controversial topics is something that helps students develop but require that such discussions take place "in an atmosphere free of bias and prejudice" and ask teachers and staffers not to "advocate personal beliefs of opinions regarding controversial topics in the course of their professional duties." The board crafted it over the past few months in executive sessions with attorney Paul Cady.
In the days after the proposal was announced, some critics of the neutrality policy greeted the possible change with relief. Others questioned the difference between expressing their opinions and advocating a viewpoint.
At Monday's meeting, some parents, teachers and community members said the existing policy ensures that topics best discussed at home stay there.
"This new proposed policy opens up the curriculum to include the topic of sexual orientation," said Laurie Thompson, president of the Parents' Action League, a group formed last year to support the neutrality policy. "We were a model for the nation in protecting students from classroom homosexual propaganda. ... This is clearly a loss for our school district and a gain for the gay activists."
On the other side, others worried that their own or their students' sexual orientations would be included among the topics deemed too controversial to cover in class.
Robin Mavis, founder of the Gay Equity Team group in the district, was one of several who commended the board for reexamining the neutrality policy, but she urged the board not to replace it. "We all know the subject of being gay would fall under this policy," she said. "I would like to remind the board that our students are not topics and they are not controversial. They are human beings."
Monday's hearing was the first on the proposal. Usually, a proposal gets a second hearing and a vote within a month, but district spokeswoman Mary Olson said discussions on this topic could go longer.
The Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy has been criticized as a "gag policy" that has helped cultivate a hostile climate for gay and lesbian students in the state's largest school district. It is the target of a lawsuit filed on behalf of six current and former students who claim the district did not adequately respond to their reports of being persistently bullied over their sexual orientation.
Over two years, four of eight district students who committed suicide identified as gay; their friends and families said they were persecuted for their sexual orientation. The district also is the subject of a federal civil rights investigation.
Officials said the change was not prompted by the lawsuit, but by teachers' complaints that they did not fully understand what was allowed.
If the measure passes, it will be the latest of several steps the district has taken this year to address bullying. Teachers will have more extensive anti-bullying training next month.
After the meeting, school board chairman Tom Heidemann seemed frustrated.
"I'm concerned that everyone is still confused," he said. "I'm beginning to think there is no way to create a policy and a practice that is not confusing to different people. It might be, really, that the training and the articulation of practice, that is really what we need to rely on."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409