Anoka-Hennepin's proposed 'controversial topics' policy not unique

The Anoka-Hennepin School District tonight will consider adopting a new policy that instructs teachers to withhold their personal views during class discussions on controversial topics, including religion and sexual orientation. The proposed controversial topics curriculum policy (posted below) is similar to the sets of rules many other Minnesota school districts have had on the books for years.

At least six of Minnesota's 15 largest school districts have policies that address how controversial topics or instructional materials should be handled: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Wayzata and Mounds View. Each of those policies vary but carry a similar message.

Click here to compare how these districts handle controversial issues.

Officials at two of those districts confirmed their policies had not been challenged or questioned in recent years, and it doesn't appear discussions over the policies in any of the other four districts became heated enough to make headlines.

But the debate over the controversial issues policy isn't likely to take place quietly in the Anoka-Hennepin district, where interest groups have been battling for years over how school officials should handle the topic of homosexuality. The school board in 2009 settled that question with a sexual orientation curriculum policy that instructed teachers to avoid the subject and to remain neutral if it came up in their classrooms.

Soon after it was adopted, the policy was criticized by some who said it acted like a gag order for teachers who were held back from adequately addressing the problem of bullying and harassment against gay students. That argument is laid out in a pending lawsuit against the district filed by several students who said they experienced bullying and harassment.

The district proposes to strike the sexual orientation curriculum policy entirely and adopt a controversial topics policy. The new policy would instruct teachers to present such issues without bias or prejudice and without advocating their personal views. Skepticism over the proposal is already mounting.

"Unfortunately, the district's proposed replacement language, focusing on 'controversial' subjects, raises many of the same concerns that the so-called 'neutrality' language does," OutFront Minnesota, an advocacy organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, said in a written statement last week.

The statement highlighted 10 unanswered questions about how the new policy would be applied.

The Parents Action League, a conservative group of parents who have supported the sexual orientation curriculum policy, has declined comment on the proposed new policy. But Brian Tommerdahl, who helped draft the sexual orientation curriculum policy and supports it, also had questions about the new policy, including how the district defines a controversial issue.

He pointed out that some people would consider same-sex marriage controversial while others wouldn't. That topic could be difficult for school officials to avoid as Minnesota voters decide next year whether to ban same-sex marriage.

For other Minnesota districts with such policies, things appear to have gone smoothly.

"There haven't been any significant concerns," said Steve Troen, director of teaching and learning for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District. "Any policy can be revised and go through a process, but that one's been in place since 1993 without a revision, so it's served us well."

Troen said the policy is likely most relevant in a social studies or health classroom but could come up in any class, especially when students bring up issues for discussion.

"A teacher can't espouse their own beliefs, but a teacher can facilitate a discussion," he said.

As for determining whether an issue is controversial, the district trusts teachers to figure that out, he said. "Teachers, as members of society and content experts in their subject area, they're aware of issues that can be controversial in society at large," Troen said.

In the Wayzata Public Schools, parents who are concerned about what topics will be covered in their child's classroom will usually receive information at school open houses at the beginning of the year, said Jill Johnson, the district's executive director of teaching at learning. Parents who don't want their children to be part of a certain discussion on a controversial issue can opt out, and the school will provide an alternative activity.

Johnson said along with the two-sentence controversial topics policy, teachers are given further guidance: The topic must be relevant to current classroom study, the teacher must be knowledgeable about it, the presentation must include both sides of an issue, and the district's position must be neutral.

"Because teachers have enormous influence with kids and we want kids to learn from experience and get to place where they make their own decisions, we don't want teachers taking sides on an issue," Johnson said.

Even though Wayzata and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan have implemented their policies without much debate, school districts' attempts to regulate how controversy is handled in classrooms can sometimes lead to major disagreements.

This year, the Los Alamitos Unified School District in a suburb of Long Beach, Calif., was under fire after a school board member suggested the district's controversial issues policy meant that a high school science class should include teaching the view that global warming doesn't exist. The debate made national headlines.

In the Anoka-Hennepin district, school board members will likely hear concerns from the same group of conservative parents who don't want their children learning about homosexuality in school. At the same time, they'll hear from parents who say avoiding the subject entirely will only lead to a hostile atmosphere for their gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender children.

Tonight's meeting will be only the first reading of the proposed controversial issues policy; another meeting is expected in January, when school board members could choose to vote on the policy.