Anoka-Hennepin reconsiders sexual orientation policy

Tammy Aaberg
Tammy Aaberg holds up a photo of her son Justin. Justin, 15, killed himself on July 9, 2010. Tammy says her son's sexual orientation made him the target of harassment, and she's now advocating for changes to the Anoka-Hennepin district's policies regarding GLBT students.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board on Monday will hear a proposal to abolish the district's sexual orientation curriculum policy and revise its harassment policy.

The proposed changes come in the wake of major scrutiny of the district for its handling of bullying and harassment against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. Several students filed a federal lawsuit against the district in July, and the U.S. Justice Department has been investigating the district's response to bullying and harassment.

The sexual orientation curriculum policy, which has been in place since 2009 and is sometimes called the "neutrality policy," says sexual orientation issues aren't part of the regular curriculum and that teachers should remain neutral if the topic comes up in class. But some students, parents and advocacy groups have argued the policy contributes to a hostile atmosphere for some students.

The lawsuit, which is being led by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says school officials failed to protect them from bullying and harassment. As part of the lawsuit, the students and two civil rights groups demanded the district get rid of the sexual orientation curriculum policy.

Read the proposed changes below.

The two sides have been in settlement talks since then, but school board members and Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson have said they wanted to keep the policy — until now.

"We've heard from our staff that they wanted clarity around our curriculum policy and this is an effort to provide that clarity," district spokesman Brett Johnson said.

Johnson said the change had nothing to do with the lawsuit. "Our school board is always looking to improve its policies," he said.

School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann described the proposed changes as "a little bit of cleanup" to address concerns about confusion. He echoed Johnson's contention that the changes came about through feedback from teachers who said they were confused about the implications of the sexual orientation curriculum policy.

"It's something we've been thinking about for some time," he said. "It's really our goal for there to be no confusion."

Julie Blaha, president of Anoka-Hennepin's teachers union, said the changes look promising, though she's waiting for teachers to weigh in on the proposals before endorsing anything.

"I think we have an opportunity for improvement here," she said. "The last policy was getting in the way more than it was helping, so I'm looking forward to seeking if we can find something better."

In addition to abolishing the sexual orientation curriculum policy, the board is proposing to strike a religious activities policy that instructs school officials to remain neutral on matters of religion. In their place, the district would adopt a "controversial topics curriculum policy" that instructs teachers to handle controversial issues with care and not advocate their personal beliefs or opinions.

Several other Minnesota school districts have similar policies, including Wayzata and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan.

Johnson said school board members will also consider numerous changes to the district's harassment policy (document below). Among the changes, the harassment policy would insert the words "actual or perceived" before a list of protected classes. It also adds definitions, reporting procedures and an appeals process.

The changes to the harassment policy are modeled after one recommended by the Minnesota School Boards Association, Heidemann said.

The first reading of the proposed policy changes will happen Monday, with a second reading and presumed vote to take place in January. If the policy changes receive board approval, they would take effect immediately, Johnson said.

REACTIONS MIXED

Reactions so far to the new controversial topics curriculum policy were mixed. Jefferson Fietek, who teaches theater at Anoka Middle School for the Arts, said he'd like to see the district get rid of the "neutrality policy" without adopting a replacement "controversial topics" policy.

"I'm hoping there's some clarification on what exactly does that mean and who decides what is a controversial topic," Fietek said. "They prohibit us from doing anything that shows support for or against a controversial topic, and my concern is that that's suddenly opening a door to all sorts of interpretations where someone might say that you're supporting a controversial topic."

Fietek said teachers already follow a code of ethics, so he doesn't see the point of adding a written policy.

Tammy Aaberg, the mother of an Anoka-Hennepin student who was bullied for being gay and later committed suicide last year, said she also has reservations about the controversial topics policy.

"It opens up so much more room for error," she said, adding that she's been reading comments about the proposed changes on Facebook. Aaberg, of Champlin, said she wants to hear what each member of the school board says about how they would interpret the new policies. She also hopes the board listens to the community before putting anything in writing.

A group of conservative parents who have said they wanted the district to prevent teachers from advocating views about homosexuality that conflicted with the views their children were exposed to at home and in church did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

But Brian Tommerdahl, who shares that perspective and was among a group of parents and community members who worked on the sexual orientation curriculum policy, said he, too, has concerns about how the new proposed policy would be interpreted. He pointed to one part of the policy that says the board "recognizes the importance of providing information about controversial topics in a democracy."

"Who is going to be providing that information? Who is going to decipher it? Is it going to go through the normal citizens' panel of reviewing materials for curriculum?" Tommerdahl asked.

The other question is how to define controversial, he said.

"Some people will consider traditional marriage, something that's been within the history and core of our society for millenniums, as controversial. Someone will look at gay marriage as being non-controversial or controversial," he said.

Still, Tommerdahl said the new policy could be workable if some definitions and more specific language were added before the board approves it.

Heidemann said he thinks the new policy is clearer and more simple, but he said he anticipates discussion.

"Based on my experience, any policy has interpretation or questions," he said.

Heidemann and the Southern Poverty Law Center said the two sides had not settled the lawsuit and were still in mediation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center said the students and families it's representing are pleased to see the board re-evaluate its policies.

"They feel that policy improvements are one important step forward in making the school district a more welcoming environment for all students," the center said in a written statement.

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