Anoka-Hennepin tries again on sexual orientation policy

Students address the school board
A group of about 20 students, mostly from Anoka High School, stood before the Anoka-Hennepin school board on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. The students presented their views on a revised policy that focuses on how teachers should handle controversial topics when they come up in class.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

A newly revised policy on how teachers should handle contentious issues including sexual orientation when they come up in class appears to be gaining support in the state's largest school district.

Anoka-Hennepin leaders presented the proposed revisions to the district's school board Monday night, and they heard something from the public that they hadn't heard in two previous meetings: words of support.

The language being proposed would replace the district's 'sexual orientation curriculum policy,' which requires teachers to remain neutral when sexual orientation discussions come up. Two pending lawsuits seek the policy's removal, saying its vagueness hampers efforts to prevent bullying of gay students. District leaders say the lawsuits are not related to their move now to consider dumping that policy.

The first proposed policy change would have instructed teachers to withhold their personal views during class discussions on controversial topics. That approach drew nearly universal opposition, often based on the complaint was that it wasn't any clearer than the existing sexual orientation policy.

On Monday night, a second replacement was introduced, the Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum. It states that teachers should not try to persuade students to adopt or reject any particular viewpoints, and also says district staff should affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students when discussing contentious issues.

District general counsel Paul Cady said this new policy, like the one it might replace, should only be used in curriculum matters.

"The proposed policy is separate from the bullying and harassment policy, and we expect our staff to enforce our harassment and bullying policy without regard to any curriculum policy. All students should feel welcome and safe in our schools," he said.

Because the new language was only made public during the meeting, most of the 20 or so speakers didn't directly address the change. Instead, they responded to comments made during previous meetings.

Robin Mavis with a group called the Gay Equity Team was among those favoring the newest language before the board.

Still, most of those who spoke in favor of the new wording added the caveat that they didn't think any policy was necessary, but it was better than the controversial topics policy that's been dropped.

On the other side, several parents, including Rebecca Vahdat, of Anoka -- who believe homosexual conduct is immoral -- told the board to keep the existing sexual orientation policy.

"We send our kids to school to help them learn to read, write, do math, science, not to have lessons on homosexuality woven into the classroom curricula," she said.

In the end, school board chair Tom Heidemann said he's still not sure how he'll vote, but he said he believed that the latest iteration of the policy "is a better policy than the controversial topics policy."

Fellow board member Scott Wenzel also voiced support for the new proposal, even though he still believes no policy is necessary. He says teachers are professional and already live by what this policy is proposing.

"But I think we have people within our community who need to have a policy, so that they have something they can grab onto and understand what's occurring in our classrooms," he said. "And also, for either side to see that we are affirming all of our students and we are supporting all of our students. And this policy says that."

The president of the Anoka-Hennepin teachers' union, Julie Blaha, reiterated that her group also doesn't believe a new policy is needed. But she says the new wording appears to have taken previous union recommendations into consideration.

She says members will meet, vote, and present the union's position on the newest proposal at the next school board meeting on Feb. 13 -- the date when board members also expect to vote on the proposal.