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Julie Blaha on LGBT issues in Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools

What, after the definition of neutrality has been parsed and re-parsed, do teachers in the state’s largest school district believe “curricular neutrality” compliance looks like?

In the more than two years since Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools announced a policy of “curricular neutrality” about LGBT issues, local headlines have described political acrimony, allegations of related student suicides and, most recently, new sources of outside pressure.

Last week the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights announced that talks aimed at doing away with the policy had failed and the groups were filing a federal suit alleging students’ civil rights had been violated. At the same time, the U.S. departments of justice and education announced formal investigations.

The district, meanwhile, has defended its policy and called for the organizations filing the suits to instead pitch in and help conduct staff training.

What’s it like to be a teacher standing at Ground Zero, we wondered? And what, after the definition of neutrality has been parsed and re-parsed, do teachers in the state’s largest school district believe compliance looks like? We put these questions to Julie Blaha, head of Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota. What follows is a condensed version of her answers.

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Beth Hawkins: In all the ink that’s been spilled overAnoka-Hennepin’s neutrality policy, I haven’t seen anyone talk about what the issue looks like to the educator. Talk about what that looks like on a practical, classroom level.

Julia Blaha
Julia Blaha

Julia Blaha: Neutrality is inherently confusing. For some people, it just means silence; we’re not going to talk about this. For some people, it means, well, I need to be able to say both sides of the story. For some people, it means, I need to be factual. It really got confusing.

From a practitioners’ perspective, the policy and the media attention and some of the statements we’re hearing are sending the message that there’s something different about how we handle issues related to homosexuality in our classrooms, but we’re not really sure what that is. That’s where the confusion is coming in. We don’t have a policy like this for religious topics or racial issues or cultural issues, class issues. We only have it for issues surrounding LGBT topics. That creates a confusion of its own.

We started sending letters to the district saying, “These are the questions that were coming up most often over the last year.” We started getting responses to that. Now what we’re doing is going through those responses to see how best do we share those with our membership.

A lot of the answers made sense, frankly. A lot of them are the kinds of answers we get with most of what we do. That is the idea that you want to make sure it is relevant to your topic and age appropriate. That’s what we’re used to, the idea that we use our professional judgment and we continue to refine our professional judgment over time.

Two years ago, pretty shortly after the policy was enacted, we had a diversity training. It’s voluntary, run by teachers for teachers. [The district administration] pulled a series of books out of that training, saying they violated the neutrality. 

One of them was called “Am I Blue?” It’s a series of coming-out stories to help teachers understand what it is like to come out. As educators working with adolescents, it’s a good thing for us to understand. Well, they said that book violated the policy and needed to be replaced with a book that showed both sides of the issue. 

That was confusing to the teachers. They said, “Our job is to help people in a majority culture understand a minority culture, an underrepresented or disenfranchised group. We don’t generally talk more about majority culture, we talk about the things that might be new to people. When we talk about racial issues, we don’t bring in people who are on the side of that because that doesn’t make a lot of sense.” 

The idea of having sides also is kind of confusing. Why would you have a side on homosexuality? What is this about both sides?

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The next fall, I sent out an e-mail to [teachers] saying, we asked for clearer, specific training around LGBT issues in our district, do you think you’ve got that? Every single answer we got back was no, we still have questions.

We listed the questions and sent them to the district saying, here are the questions teachers have. Some of them were seemingly simple questions, like, if you’re a gay teacher and a student comes up to you and says, “Hey, are you gay?” what do you answer?

Some gay teachers were telling us, “I’m really worried about that question. I’m not sure what will happen if I answer it honestly. I’m not sure what will happen if I don’t answer it. That’s going to send a message, too. How should we handle that?”

Or if a student brings up something that’s clearly not factual. One of the questions we asked was, what kind of facts can we use if someone says something about whether being gay is something you’re born with or something that you decide? Can we bring up the American Psychological Association’s position on that, the American Medical Association, the American Pediatric Association’s position on that? Can those be facts?

I don’t know if we got a real clear answer. So just be neutral seems like a nice easy thing to say until you try to do it. 

Beth Hawkins: Can you give me an example of direction you have gotten about what is acceptable?

Julia Blaha: We’ve gotten several letters back. One of the questions we asked was can the gay rights movement be taught in the context of the civil rights movement in America? The response we had from our former associate superintendent who covered the curriculum advisory committee [was] yes, in the concept of this learning target, and we have this learning target, understand that other disenfranchised groups use the African-American model of civil disobedience to gain their rights.

Next question: Could a student choose the gay rights movement as a subject for a paper or presentation? And the answer is, in an open-ended assignment, kids always have the option to choose their topic. If and when staff addresses sexual orientation, they do it in a respectful manner that’s age-appropriate, factual and pertinent to the relevant curriculum. 

That’s a pretty reasonable response, and these are the kinds of things that we can start talking about. At first, when there were more answers coming from lawyers, well, those are really, really hard to read; and they’re not super-practical. When we get to the point where it’s teachers and administrators and students and parents, and we’re just sitting down, just talking about the nuts and bolts of work and what students need, that’s when the discussions go the best.

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We want to be able to do what’s right for our kids without fear. Regardless of what’s happening outside of our classrooms, to make sure that we can keep our focus on our kids and find those good practices that help them feel safe and feel welcome and fully part of our room. 

Beth Hawkins: You’ve said the lawsuit may complicate things.

Julia Blaha: I don’t want to make it sound like I am taking a position on the lawsuits or policy discussions out here. I do believe it’s important that our students and families speak out and take action on issues that are important to them. I think the political, philosophical and legal debates have real value. The media attention has been stressful, but it has helped people take initiative on school climate issues that they may have otherwise avoided.

As education professionals, our work is best focused on the day to day activities of our schools and classrooms. When we do our work well, we are having open, specific discussions on what will work in our individual classrooms. Those other debates can inform our work, but our individual students and situations give us the best information to find solutions.

No matter what we decide about the policy or how the lawsuits turn out, that will only be the beginning of our work. Lasting improvements to our school climate will happen school by school, classroom by classroom.