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Progress in St. Paul schools, Anoka-Hennepin reconsiders 'neutrality' policy

Two quick hits today: One, a note about the proposal to be taken up Monday night by the Anoka-Hennepin School Board to alter its controversial “neutrality” policy regarding LGBT issues, the other a few quick takeaways from yesterday’s annual “state of the schools” address by St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva.

Valeria Silva
spps.org
Valeria Silva

Second things first. It’s the second time Silva has addressed community stakeholders since her appointment two years ago. I didn’t attend last year’s overview, but I’m positive this year’s is more upbeat.

“I can tell you I’m more confident than ever we are moving in the right direction,” she told an audience of civic leaders gathered in the auditorium at the Como Zoo.

I’ll append the full text of her remarks, which include lots of interesting SPPS info and some charming anecdotes about district students; what follows is a summation of the high points.

This time last year SPPS honchos were taking flak from all sides as they moved to make the same kinds of painful changes so many urban districts are currently undergoing. Faced with rising transportation costs, anemic enrollment, empty coffers and a yawning achievement gap, they were closing schools, redrawing attendance maps and trying to figure out how to drastically accelerate learning.

Many St. Paulites of color were fearful that the district would become more segregated as a result, while middle- and upper-class families were upset at proposed changes at popular, oversubscribed programs.

Yesterday, Silva shared evidence of progress. Enrollment is up, St. Paul’s minority students do as well or better than their peers in other districts and test scores are up all over. And the community angst is all but forgotten. 

Two years into her superintendency, Silva has mastered what politicians call “the ask”: She credited some of the progress to community members who support the school’s levy, which is up for renewal next year, explaining what they got for their money.

After trotting out SPPS’ 4 percent gain in reading — “This may not be large for the business community, but for us it’s huge,” she told an audience rife with business leaders — she added that kids who participated in the district’s oversubscribed, levy-funded pre-K programs were best positioned to make big strides.

The disparity in reading preparedness between white and African-Americans kids entering the program is 26 percent, Silva said, a gap the program narrows to 10 percent.

“Now that is a return for our referendum dollars,” she said. “Thank you, voters.”

Anoka-Hennepin reevaluates anti-harassment policy
St. Paul must seem like the land of beer and Skittles to Denny Carlson, superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin School District, who Wednesday afternoon announced a proposal to strengthen its anti-harassment policy and end the schools’ policy of “curricular neutrality” on sexual orientation issues.

A wave of suicides by bullied gay and lesbian kids has drawn attention to the policy, which requires staff to maintain a neutral position when LGBT issues come up. MinnPost detailed the controversy and its history earlier this week, so we won’t recap further.

Instead, just a couple of notes about the policy the district would like the board to consider passing as a replacement:

The “Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy” would “recognize the importance of providing information about controversial topics in a democracy” but directs staff to “not advocate personal beliefs or opinions regarding controversial topics in the course of their professional duties.”

One of the public-interest law firms pursuing a suit against the district issued a positive statement. “The students and families are pleased that the school board is reevaluating its policies,” attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center said. “They feel that policy improvements are one important step forward in making the school district a more welcoming environment for all students.”

Some district staff were unconvinced, however, noting that they still have no idea what they could actually say to a student struggling with sexual orientation issues. 

Curious whether such a policy would run afoul of the First Amendment — or even be enforceable — I called Jane Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Government employees’ free speech rights can be restricted to some extent when it promotes a compelling interest, she said. “If the government [agency] doesn’t impose this restriction,” she said, “will it be possible to do what it needs to do?”

In any case, the speech in question and the restrictions have to be clearly delineated.

In practical terms, the rule did not strike Kirtley as enforceable. “Technically, an opinion is something that is not provably true or false,” she explained. “Depending on who you are talking to, these are opinions or these are facts.”

An example: One question that Anoka-Hennepin teachers complain they can’t answer under the neutrality policy is, “Is homosexuality a lifestyle or an orientation?” Under the proposed opinion policy, they still couldn’t answer it, she said.

“I really don’t see how, from a First Amendment standpoint, you could police a policy like this,” she added. “This is a difficult one. It’s difficult to balance free speech rights while protecting people.”

Indeed, is there a difference between staying neutral on a topic and not advancing or advocating one’s opinion? “How many angels dance on the head of a pin?” Kirtley replied.

Speech, she concluded, has a funny way of finding an outlet, be that face-to-face encounters in the lunchroom or Facebook chatter. “Controlling speech as a means of controlling behavior just doesn’t work.”

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Comments (6)

I’ve no idea if restrictions on one’s First Amendment rights ought to go with the territory or not if one is teaching. Prudence suggests that some caution ought to be practiced, but it’s hard to argue with Kirtley’s interpretation that the rule is probably unenforceable. That said, if the issue comes up again, which wouldn’t surprise any of us, it’s likely that the teacher who did – or didn’t – follow the policy (important caveat – “follow the policy” as district administration thinks it should be followed, not as building personnel interpret it) will be the one on the hot seat, not the Board or the Superintendent. If a policy is vague – a conclusion I leave to others in this case – it’s the teacher who will get caught in the legal and procedural gears.

Frankly, I think it IS possible to “provide information about” a controversial topic without injecting one’s personal opinions or beliefs, but it does require some minimal degree of self-control, as well as some thinking on the fly. Zealots on both left and right are often lacking such self-control, but that would be the case no matter what district policy might happen to be.

Some people might describe a majority pelting a minority with spiteful invective while simultaneously being preventing that minority from presenting a civil, yet critical response in defense as "bullying".

But I call it another day at MinnPost. ;-)

Ever the compromiser, I encourage thoughtful readers to visit the Pioneer Press, read the statement from a district English teacher, and see if there is anything there that strikes you as odd.

http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_19498220

Please stop using phrases like this: "A wave of suicides by bullied gay and lesbian kids" when talking about Anoka-Hennepin. Exactly one student was known to be gay. The sexuality of any other student who died has not been made public by the families. Unless this reporter has done the reporting to prove otherwise, she is taking assumptions and unproven allegations as fact.

'Please stop using phrases like this: "A wave of suicides by bullied gay and lesbian kids" when talking about Anoka-Hennepin. Exactly one student was known to be gay. The sexuality of any other student who died has not been made public by the families,' said Brett Johnson.

Johnson is right. The phrase should have been "a wave of suicides caused by homophobic bullying." The actual sexual orientation of the victims is irrelevant. The motivation of the bullies, however, is relevant.

We should all be aware that homophobia doesn't hurt only gays and lesbians. It hurts all people who are associated with them.

Brett, I think in fairness our readers need to know you are a member of the Anoka-Hennepin School District's communications office.

Miss Hawkins:

I think in all fairness to your readers, you should identify your political sympathies and your membership in or support for any GBLT causes or organizations.

Reporters should disclose information that have a bearing on how it would affect their reporting of a story or event. In this case, Miss Hawkins should identify her political sympathies and her membership in or support for any GBLT causes or organizations.

The readers can then view her reporting in context, and judge whether her reporting would be tainted by her views concerning social issues, and if there is any conflict of interest.

What she demands of others, others can demand of her. As a reporter of fact, it is ethically required.