Anoka-Hennepin says policy change offers clarification; some critics not so sure

After months of criticsm, the Anoka-Hennepin school board will take the first steps on Monday towards abolishing a controversial sexual orientation policy.

The 'neutrality policy' would be replaced with another policy that critics worry would be at least as confusing.

The current policy requires teachers to remain neutral if the topic of sexual orientation is raised. Some students, parents and advocacy groups have argued that policy contributes to a hostile atmosphere for students who are gay or perceived to be. To that end, two pending federal lawsuits seek the policy's removal.

On Monday, the board will hear a proposal to do just that. Both the sexual orientation and a separate policy on religious neutrality would go away and be replaced with a new policy. That new policy acknowledges the importance of discussing controversial topics in class — but would state that teachers and staff should not advocate their personal opinions.

Monday's meeting will be a first reading for the change. A final vote could come as early as January.

School board chairman Tom Heidemann said the board is not responding to the lawsuit or to ongoing mediation with the federal Justice and Education departments. Heidemann said it is an attempt to provide clarity that teachers and staff had requested.

"Our hope here is that the language is so much more simplified, that the clear expectation is stated there — with the hope, of course, that it reduces confusion relative to expectations of the school board. So our hope is it is better."

Some of the district's harshest critics say they're worried it won't be better.

"I feel it's sort of a step sideways."

Jefferson Fietek, a teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts, is thrilled that the sexual orientation policy might go away, but does not see the point of the new for the new policy.

"I say just get rid of the sexual orientation policy; don't replace it with another policy; and simply trust teachers to do their jobs," Fietek said.

Teachers already abide by a code of ethics and know it is unacceptable to only advocate for one viewpoint on controversial topics, Fietek said. He said he's worried the new policy would create more misinterpretation — similar to the way he feels the sexual orientation policy has been misinterpreted.

District spokesman Brett Johnson believes there will be less confusion by getting rid of the very sexual orientation policy that causes the confusion.

"If a student is gay and comes out to a teacher — how is the teacher supposed to respond? Do they think of the neutrality policy first, or do they think of an appropriate response?" Johnson said. "Now we're saying that shouldn't even be in your thought process. You're attending to the student, period."

One concern with the new policy is over the word "controversial."

Robin Mavis is an Anoka-Hennepin parent who founded a group called the Gay Equity Team, which has pushed to get rid of the sexual orientation policy.

Teachers have previously told MPR News it is unclear to them whether they can, for example, console a student who comes out to them and wants to talk about being gay. Mavis worries a controversial topics policy would continue that confusion because sexual orientation likely fits the definition of a controversial topic.

Mavis hopes the board clarifies the wording so teachers would know, for example, "That it's okay for teachers to say to kids 'You are fine the way you are' or 'It's OK for people to be non-conforming to gender norms,' and that that would not be construed as opinion."

Both sides of the issue worry over misinterpretation.

"Some people will consider traditional marriage as controversial. Somebody will look at gay marriage as non-controversial or controversial. So who's going to determine those controversial topic matters," asked Brian Tommerdahl, who was part of a group that helped craft the current neutrality policy.

District spokesman Johnson said if the board approves the new would be the administration's job to provide guidance on what could constitute a controversial topic.

The Anoka-Hennepin teachers' union is holding off on endorsing the change until it hears from members, but union president Julie Blaha said she's glad the district is having the conversation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups suing the district, said in a statement that the students and families it represents are pleased to see the board re-evaluate its policies. The statement did not mention whether this policy change would satisfy demands set out in the lawsuit.

Members of the Parent Action League, which supports the current neutrality policy, did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.