Even as the Anoka-Hennepin school board voted Monday night to replace the controversial policy that required teachers to remain neutral on the topic of sexual orientation in the classroom, it was clear that divisions in the state's largest school district still run deep.

The board voted 5-1 to replace the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy with one that emphasizes "respectful exchanges of views" during classroom discussions of sexual orientation and other contentious issues.

Ninety minutes of comments by 25 speakers before the vote reflected arguments made during months of discord about the district's handling of the issue, as well as deep differences over how homosexuality is perceived and discussed.

The situation has drawn widespread attention as part of an emotional nationwide discussion of how gay teens are treated. Some blamed the so-called neutrality policy for creating an atmosphere that tolerated persistent bullying of students who are gay or perceived as gay.

Several school board members were visibly relieved upon adoption of the new policy, formally called the Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy. "I'm glad we're done with it for now," said Chairman Tom Heidemann.

The single no vote was cast by Board Member Kathy Tingelstad, who said she was concerned about the influence outside groups have had on the discussion. "I think we could have done better," she said.

Although the speakers remained civil, it was apparent that disagreement is as deep as ever; 13 people spoke in favor of getting rid of the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy and 12 supported keeping it.

Those who favored the neutrality policy objected to opponents' characterization of their views. They said they worry that children who hold conservative Christian or moral beliefs will feel censored and shamed if they voice critical opinions.

"How is a conservative student going to feel?" asked Tiffany Strabala, of Andover. "You saw what happened when we came out and voiced our concerns. We were considered closed-minded, bigoted, judgmental and hateful."

Others who opposed changing the policy reiterated their beliefs that homosexuality is a dangerous "lifestyle choice" and that sexuality education belongs in the home. They said scrapping the old policy would create an opening for "homosexual activists" to push an agenda in the classroom.

"Even the [former policy] didn't stop self-righteous, progressive teachers from bringing homosexual propaganda into the classrooms," said Laurie Thompson, president of the Parents Action League, drawing gasps from some in the room.

On the other side, some who supported scrapping the neutrality policy praised the new one because it does not single out any one group. But many said they think it's overly cautious, expressing concerns that it could quash or distort open discourse on important issues.

Teachers and representatives of the Gay Equity Team suggested that the best option would be no policy at all. Several warned that the new policy's requirement for balanced discussion could give false weight to uneven arguments based on opinion, not fact. As examples, they offered such topics as evolution, climate change and civil rights, saying that even though differing opinions exist, both sides are not equally supported by scientific research or public opinion.

"Will teachers be forced to give equal time and weight to both sides, not because the weight of evidence is equal, but because the Anoka-Hennepin community has deemed it contentious?" asked Dan Rebek of Coon Rapids.

Board reminded of spotlight

Although district officials have said removing the policy was not connected to the lawsuit filed last summer on behalf of students who said complaints of persistent bullying based on sexual orientation were not adequately addressed, removal of the policy is key to the plaintiffs' demands. The groups that filed the lawsuit, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, released a statement after the vote.

Calling the repeal an "important step," the organization went on to say, "Today is the first day in nearly 18 years that Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District no longer has a harmful policy that singles out lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students."

Speakers on both sides reminded the board that the vote was being watched nationally.

"You are the gatekeepers," said Parents Action League member Barb Anderson. "This decision will affect our children and grandchildren and will have a ripple effect for years to come. On this one issue you will be remembered forever for your vote."

On the other side was the Rev. Margo Richardson, who has spoken to the board before on behalf of herself, her partner and their son.

"Community members who continue to be obsessed with condemning gay people won't go away; they will press you to continue to discriminate against gay people," she said. "Please remember we expect you to protect students, not pander to prejudice."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409