By a 5-1 margin, the Anoka-Hennepin school board voted Monday night to revoke its so-called 'neutrality policy,' which required teachers to remain neutral when issues of sexual orientation come up in the classroom.
Critics said the policy was vague and left teachers and staff confused as to whether they could talk to students, especially gay and lesbian students, in certain situations.
But board member Kathy Tingelstad cast the only "no" vote, and blamed unnamed outsiders for the push to reject the existing policy.
"I think we were being pushed by outside influences that were outside of our school district, and I know we're setting some national standards here tonight and I'm disappointed that we couldn't have done a better job," she said.
Board member Scott Wenzel said he hoped the vote would move the community forward. "This policy is truly a compromise," he said.
And while district leaders say their move was not related to legal action, getting rid of the neutrality policy was a major demand in two pending federal lawsuits. In July, two national civil rights groups sued on behalf of several students. The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center claim the students were harassed for their sexual orientation, and a key demand of the suit was that the policy be repealed.
Monday night's almost unanimous vote accomplished just that. In its place, the board approved what's called the "respectful learning environment" policy. The new language says teachers should not try to persuade students to accept or reject any viewpoint when contentious topics such as sexual orientation come up. It also says staff should affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students.
From the moment in December when the district first proposed dropping the neutrality policy, administrators said the lawsuit was not the reason or their actions. Superintendent Dennis Carlson reiterated that after last night's vote.
"The board wanted to do this on their own time, on their own terms. That's why it's taken as long as it has," he said.
But Laurie Thompson, with a group called the Parents Action League that opposed changing the policy for fear that gay activists would have too much freedom in the district, wasn't buying that.
"If this lawsuit hadn't been filed, this change in policy never would have been initiated," she said. "The board is very confident that this new policy will keep the homosexual agenda out of the classrooms, but I'm not so sure about that."
Meanwhile, supporters of gay and lesbian students say the neutrality policy had to go because it was contributing to a hostile environment in which six students in the district had committed suicide in less than two years. Some of those students were gay, and at least one parent said her son was bullied for being gay. The district has said its internal investigation found no evidence that bullying contributed to the deaths.
Andover High school senior Macky Barnette, 17, whose parents are lesbians, told the board she knew one of the students who died.
"What do gay people want that's so different from what straight people want? They just to be happy and live a normal lifestyle, like we do," she said. "I don't understand how my parents and my friends at school can be so discriminated against."
Several groups — including the district's teachers union argued there was no need to enact a new policy to replace the old one, but they nonetheless supported the new language. Now, they say the biggest challenge will be to make sure the new policy is implemented in a way that avoids further confusion.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights both applauded the rejection of the policy they sued to have removed. In a statement, the groups added they were pleased the new policy requires all students be affirmed. But they also said they'd have preferred the district not replace the neutrality policy outright, without creating a new policy.
Still, that last point might very well end up moot, at least in terms of the lawsuit, because it only asks for the neutrality policy's removal — it's silent on whether it should be replaced.
Another round of settlement talks between the district and plaintiffs is scheduled to start March 1.