People in the Anoka-Hennepin School District who have spent months divided over a so-called neutrality policy on sexual orientation now appear united in opposition to a new policy being proposed to replace it.
The state's largest school district is considering whether to abolish the sexual orientation language and replace it with a policy instructing teachers how to address controversial topics in the classroom, and the public got its first chance to weigh in Monday night.
School board chairman Tom Heidemann told the 60 or so people at the school board meeting that the proposed changes are meant to provide clarity.
"It's an update policy; an attempt to minimize confusion," he said. "This has been a criticism from some teachers and community members in the past."
Currently policy requires Anoka-Hennepin teachers and staff to remain neutral if the subject of sexual orientation comes up. Critics say the policy is confusing and contributes to a hostile environment for gay students. Two national civil rights groups -- the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights -- have brought lawsuits that seek the policy's removal.
The board is now considering getting rid of that sexual orientation policy, though officials say the lawsuits are not the reason. Another policy requiring neutrality on religious matters would also be abandoned and a new "controversial topics" policy would instruct teachers to withhold their personal views during class discussions on such matters.
Seventeen people spoke at Monday night's meeting, and all of them who spoke directly about the proposed policy change had problems with it -- though for different reasons.
Critics of the current sexual orientation policy told board members they were in danger of replacing one vague, misinterpreted policy with another. They wondered who would determine what is "controversial" and covered by the policy.
Anoka High School senior Rachel Hawley, 18, also worried the new language would stigmatize gay and lesbian students because, she assumes, sexual orientation would be one of those controversial topics.
"You're telling students that their identity -- that who they are -- is controversial, and 'controversial' tends to have negative connotations," she said.
Meanwhile, supporters of the current sexual orientation policy also wondered what constitutes "controversial." They told board members the removal of the sexual orientation policy would open classrooms to pro-homosexual teaching. "The gay activists now have it all, and the school board will have to deal with the fallout at many levels as you watch how they will weave this topic throughout the curriculum at all grade levels," said Laurie Thompson, of the Parents Action League, a group that supports the current policy.
Heidemann said afterwards that while the intention was to clear up confusion, he is open to changing the proposed language, given the public comments.
"I think it's a little premature to say exactly how things will go forward, but we really do want this to be an opportunity of input to what the board is considering here," he said.
One option could be to define the word "controversial" to offer more guidance, Heidemann said. And it would be up to the board and district leadership to provide training on the new policy, if it's approved.
Fellow board member Scott Wenzel opposes the current sexual orientation policy, and doesn't think the new controversial topics policy is needed. But if there is going to be a new policy, Wenzel said he considers it a good sign that both sides of the debate had something to dislike.
"At some point you have to get to a middle ground to be able to move ahead, and that's what I have a feeling this is," he said.
One group that still hasn't weighed in is the Anoka-Hennepin teachers' union. President Julie Blaha said she hopes teachers can meet in early 2012 to discuss the proposal further before taking a position.
If enacted, Anoka-Hennepin would join several districts with a policy on controversial topics. Minneapolis, St. Paul, Wayzata and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan are among those that have had similar language on the books for years. But those communities have not experienced the division Anoka-Hennepin has over its sexual orientation policy.
The board is also considering updating its harassment policy to align it with the latest guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education. For instance, it would specifically protect students who defy gender stereotypes of masculinity and femininity and the friends of family of gay students. No one spoke against the changes to that policy Monday.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)