Anoka-Hennepin's 'controversial topics' proposal draws more criticism

Bullying pledge
Students walk by a poster displaying a bully-free pledge at the Fred Moore campus of Anoka Middle School for the Arts in Anoka, Minn. Friday, June 3, 2011. The pledge, which all students were asked to voluntarily sign, was started at the school in January, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Leaders of Minnesota's largest school district are still wrestling with whether to replace a controversial sexual orientation policy with a new policy that has also drawn plenty of criticism.

More than 30 people spoke at a district school board meeting Monday night in Coon Rapids that was set up to address the topic. There was no consensus from the public on how the board should act, and board members themselves seemed just as unsure.

The meeting was the board's second to hear from the public ahead of a possible final vote on Jan. 23. Such was the contentiousness of the debate that in the end, even that vote date was thrown into question.

"I think it is hard to pin down a date when there are so many questions, relative to what the right decision is," said school board chair Tom Heidemann towards the end of the meeting.

At issue is a curriculum policy that requires Anoka-Hennepin teachers and staff to remain neutral if the subject of sexual orientation comes up. Critics say it's confusing and contributes to a hostile environment for gay and lesbian students. Lawsuits filed by two national civil rights groups -- the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights -- seek the policy's removal.

The board is 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 go, and a new "controversial topics" policy would instruct teachers to withhold their personal views during class discussions on controversial topics.

Supporters and opponents of the current policy all seemed to take issue with the proposed policy.

"It just doesn't make sense why you would change a policy that didn't work in the first place with a new one that's even more unclear," said Anoka High School student Kira Weinmann.

Mary Jane Milless, of Coon Rapids, said she sent her children to a parochial school through the eighth grade so they would be educated in keeping with their family's faith. She said she doesn't think it's the role of their public high school to teach them things that conflict with those values.

"I don't want my kids educated on morality at Coon Rapids High School. I want them educated on the basics," said Milless, who works in an elementary school cafeteria.

But the Rev. Margo Richardson, a Christian Church-Disciples of Christ pastor from Coon Rapids, said teachers need the tools to stop the bullying of gay students.

"There is no neutral or middle-of-the-road position here," said Richardson, who is openly gay and in a committed long-term relationship. "You either believe it is OK for some students to die so others won't be made uncomfortable, or you don't. Gay students deserve the same respect for who they are that every other student in this district gets. Craft a policy that protects students' lives, not a policy that protects prejudice."

Anoka High School seniors Rachel Hawley and Emily Hall presented the board with petitions that they said were signed by more than 350 students in favor of dropping the existing policy and scrapping the proposed replacement.

The district's teachers' union, which represents more than 2,700 teachers, also took its first official stance on the proposal. President Julie Blaha said members find the current policy confusing and support getting rid of it.

"But we don't believe a new policy to replace it is needed," she said. "Now, if they have to have a policy, we think with a few changes it could better reflect what we do in the classroom."

Blaha said the union wants clarification on matters like who decides what's controversial. Members also want the board to clarify that "controversial" should only be applied to issues, not individual students.

The Parents Action League, a group that supports the current neutrality policy, presented 10 demands. Since the district's website includes a section on LGBT matters, the group argues there should also be a section for "students of faith, moral conviction, ex-homosexuals and ex-transgenders." Other demands include district-provided seminars for staff on overcoming sexual disorders and a mandate that all staff be provided information from several "pro-family, ex-homosexual, and ex-transgender" websites. The group's Laurie Thompson, of Andover, said the board is retreating from promises to stick with the current policy and that LGBT advocates using lawsuits to get their way.

"If you appease them now, they will only be back with another lawsuit to gain more advances into our public schools," she asserted. "They will not rest until they have completed their goal of 'queering the curriculum.'"

Later, after most speakers had left, members had their first discussion of the policy change as a board since it was proposed last month. Scott Wenzel said he's not sure his fellow board members and he know just what they ultimately want to accomplish with a new policy.

"It seems as we try to make it more clear, we're only making it more bureaucratic and less clear, which is quite amazing to me," Wenzel said.

School board member Michael Sullivan, who attended the meeting by phone, also expressed frustration.

"We seem to have watched this issue erode to the point where you have, essentially, two camps: One that wants to leave it the same and one that wants to get rid of the policy altogether, while both seem to be, at the same time, claiming that they're confused," he said.

Board chair Tom Heidemann said he personally didn't think the proposal had succeeded so farin clearing up confusion. He predicted the board will do one of two things: Leave the current policy in place, or adopt the new policy with some clarification. He called a third option -- to just drop the current policy with no replacement -- unlikely.

"I think that that's not a position the board will go in. So, there will be a policy, the question is 'what's the best policy?' And so that's, I think, what we're struggling with," he said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)