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Both sides turn out to criticize Anoka-Hennepin’s proposed ‘controversial topics’ policy

You can hardly blame them for trying.

Last night, before a phalanx of television cameras and a packed house, members of the Anoka-Hennepin School Board congratulated the dozen winners of the district’s 2011 anti-bullying poster contest.

The kids lined up clutching their masterpieces obligingly. Those from lower grades were presented with new bikes, while older kids got iPods.

Tom Heidemann
Tom Heidemann

“Take all the pictures you want,” Board Chair Tom Heidemann encouraged the flock of parents that pressed to the front of the room. “We’ll wait.”

In addition to the aforementioned media crush, the board and a decent cross-section of the district’s administration, “we” included several dozen community members with strong opinions about a proposal to do away with Anoka-Hennepin’s controversial so-called neutrality policy.

To a person, those in the two deeply entrenched camps agreed on one thing: Replacing the current Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, which requires staff to stay neutral on matters involving sexual orientation, with a rule forbidding them from “advocating” their personal opinion on controversial topics, is a bad idea.

Some sought simple end to neutrality policy
Many supporters of the district’s LGBT students and staff asked the board to simply eliminate the neutrality policy.

“What is a controversial topic and who decides what it is?” Anoka High School senior Rachael Hawley asked the board members. “What does it mean for a debate coach or a debate teacher? Also, can you tell me the difference between advocacy and expression?”

By her lights, the policy itself should qualify for the opinion ban: “You’re telling students that who they are, their identity, is controversial.”

“This is the only area where the district treats its students in this dehumanizing way,” said Robin Mavis of the Gay Equity Team, a group advocating LGBT rights within the district. “In fact, the district has done a wonderful job on homelessness.”

Others accused board members Heidemann, John Hoffman and Marci Anderson of breaking a campaign promise “to not back down under pressure from the homosexual lobby.”

The controversial-topics policy is confusing, agreed Barb Anderson, a researcher for the religious right Minnesota Family Council and head of the Parents Action League, which has kept the heat on the state’s largest school district.

And she agreed it does single out one set of people: “There is no other group that continually seeks to infiltrate the classroom. They call it queering the curriculum.”

The issue of bullying
Over the last two and a half years, at least seven Anoka-Hennepin students have committed suicide, many of them after bullying that involved their perceived sexual or gender orientation. Their friends and parents — many of whom were in the audience last night — said adults at their schools knew about the harassment but did nothing.

The district has long maintained that its own investigation turned up no reports of suicides related to bullying, much less to anti-gay harassment. Unconvinced, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice are investigating the district’s civil-rights record.

For their part, teachers and other staffers have said they lack guidance on how to enforce the district’s anti-bullying policy without running afoul of the neutrality edict. Several turned up at the meeting to express concern that the proposed replacement policy would not clarify things.

“I read the policy and my heart started hurting all over again,” said Tammy Aaberg, mother of Justin Aaberg, who hung himself in his room in July 2010 at the age of 15 after being bullied for being gay. “Because now we’re going from being neutral to labeling LGBT people as controversial.”

In a brief overview of the proposed change, which will not come up for a vote until January, General Counsel Paul Cady explained that the new policy was a routine attempt to bring the district into compliance with changing state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Neither side sees change as routine
Neither of the camps in the audience bought this, either. Anderson and a few of the other supporters of the neutrality policy told the board they had heard the proposed change was in response to two civil-rights lawsuits brought on behalf of six students by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The suit and another that preceded it, filed last winter by the same attorneys on behalf of two lesbian Champlin Park High School seniors who wanted to hold hands during a pep-rally processional, were the subject of a special MinnPost report published the morning the district announced the proposed change had been put on the board’s agenda.

That story depicted Sarah Lindstrom, who attended last night’s meeting with her mother, and Desiree Shelton as hoping their suit, settlement and highly publicized Snow Days processional would empower their classmates.

To judge from the young adult contingent at the board meeting, they succeeded. 

“We are constantly referring to ourselves as a family,” said one. “How do you expect to have a family when not everyone can be heard?”

A 2010 graduate of Blaine High School, Justin Anderson told the board he saw no difference between the two policies.

“The inherent assumption is that there is something wrong with being lesbian, gay, transgendered or bisexual,” he said. “I did not choose to be gay, or to be harassed every day.”

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/13/2011 - 11:49 am.

    “You’re telling students that who they are, their identity, is controversial.”

    Only if we define people, or they define themselves, by their sexual practices, which is unlikely.

    The TST or Twenty Statements Test is a common psychological test used to identify one’s “sense of self.” It’s used to help identify those self-designations which may be due more to our “roles” than who we really are or could be.

    Only a small minority of people list their sexual orientation as their top descriptor.

  2. Submitted by Brett Johnson on 12/13/2011 - 12:59 pm.

    This report passes off a number of statements about the sexual orientation and allegations of bullying regarding students who committed suicide. These statements are made here without attribution, as if they are facts. Only one student’s sexual orientation was confirmed. No specific incidents of bullying involving the students who died were brought to the district’s attention. Not in the last two years, not today. If information had been brought forth, the district would (and still will) investigate. If Beth Hawkins or anyone else has specific information that Anoka-Hennepin staff overlooked in incident of bullying that led to a student’s death, they need to tell the superintendent. No details have ever been provided that indicate this.

  3. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 12/13/2011 - 02:09 pm.


    Again, I think in all fairness to our readers, you should identify yourself as a member of the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s communications staff.

  4. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 12/13/2011 - 03:39 pm.

    It was my understanding the school district used the term “controversial” so that the neutrality policy would cover more than sexual identity. For example, staff wouldn’t be allowed to advocate a political/partisan position, either for DFL or GOP, as part of the curriculum.
    Besides, very few people consider their sexual attractions to being their core identity. If I were asked to tell about myself and the first thing I said was “I’m a heterosexual,” most people would think that was a strange response. I’m sure it would be the same for gays.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/13/2011 - 04:23 pm.

    Thanks for identifying Brett’s role, Beth; it adds to his credibility. And thanks to Brett for his important contributions to factual discourse.

    Care to address Brett’s objections, Beth?

    BTW, evidently the homosexual lobby has taken a page from the warmer crowd. It’s no longer politically correct to suggest there is *anything* controversial about homosexual behavior; we have consensus.


  6. Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 12/13/2011 - 04:50 pm.

    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.

  7. Submitted by Eric Hall on 12/13/2011 - 08:44 pm.

    Swift – let’s start with your idea that being homosexual is controversial. Why is it controversial? Is it because it is “unnatural?” If we go by that premise, should we go back to the days of prohibition since it is not natural for us to consume distilled alcohol?

    In Ms. Hawkins other article I commented to show that there is evidence that genetics play at least part of the role in determining someone’s sexual orientation. There is also evidence in over 1500 species in nature of homosexual behavior. This is not unnatural.

    I am sure you wouldn’t want the morality police in your home watching every activity deciding if each was moral or natural.

  8. Submitted by melissa thompson on 12/13/2011 - 09:12 pm.

    I find it beyond belief that Brett Johnson would continue to say something completely untrue. The superintendent himself admitted as much on CNN when he said “gay students in our district struggle with bullying and harassment on a daily basis.” But then tried to convince people that despite that fact as far as all those suicides are concerned “None of those were bullied” yet they didn’t didn’t even conduct “formal” investigations. Clearly this board and it’s spokeperson’s are accustomed to just saying whatever they think people want to hear and expecting us to just take their word for it. Well this mother knows better and mothers like Tammy Aaberg and the others who’ve buried children deserve alot better than a blatant lie. The community is waking up and seeing the ineffective leadership and dishonesty of this board and having Brett johnson continue to parrot misleading if not completely false talking points doesn’t bode well for the district.

  9. Submitted by melissa thompson on 12/13/2011 - 09:14 pm.

    I intended to include the link on Dennis Carlson’s comments to Poppy Harlow.

  10. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/13/2011 - 09:40 pm.

    (1) Sounds like some members of the religious right are attempting in these comments to further their opinions by impugning the honesty and motives of a good reporter. Do you folks think Beth Hawkins makes things up to further an agenda of her own?

    (2) How do other school districts handle the problem of bullying students for this or any other reason? Are there things Anoka-Hennepin could be learning from them?

  11. Submitted by Kris Palmer on 12/13/2011 - 10:05 pm.

    There have been gay and lesbian people as long as there have been people. The military finally realized drawing distinctions was unnecessary. Young people are abandoning these prejudices faster than they can be re-instilled. It will be a great day in this country when precious time and energy are no longer squandered on this matter and people can discuss sexual orientation as casually as they discuss their family’s Swedish ancestry, interest in trap shooting, or long tradition of farming.

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/14/2011 - 11:38 am.

    Eric, the link you provided earlier provided anectdotal evidence, at best, that genetics play a role.

    That’s not to say that I don’t believe there might be a genetic connection, but in fact, the best evidence I’ve seen suggests a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (environment & learning by example).

    “There is also evidence in over 1500 species in nature of homosexual behavior.”

    We are human beings, Eric; big brains, eh? I don’t judge my behavior by comparing it to animals, and I’m not really sure you meant to either.

    we’re still waiting for Beth to address Brett’s objections, BTW. He spoke specifically Beth, it should be pretty simple to disprove his assertions if they are not correct. In this instance, your silence is damning, IMO.

    And finally, thanks to Bernice for this nice chuckler: “Do you folks think Beth Hawkins makes things up to further an agenda of her own?”

  13. Submitted by Jim Roth on 12/14/2011 - 11:54 am.

    Thomas and Neal, why the personal attacks on the reporter who is reporting on views contrary to your own? Isn’t it enough just to state your views and whatever you believe supports them? By the way I support LGBT equality as a matter of principle. I am not actively involved in any organization on one side or the other.

  14. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/14/2011 - 01:48 pm.

    Jim, it’s well known that MinnPost doesn’t allow personal attacks. I’ve addressed the poor quality of Beth’s report, not Beth.

  15. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/14/2011 - 04:20 pm.

    Eric, upon reflection I think you’ve really hit upon something with your alcohol analogy.

    Alcohol is, and always has been controversial. It’s use is linked to medical problems and higher incidence of disease. And society heaps scorn upon inebriates despite the fact that as with homosexuality, there is evidence that genetics plays a part.

    Should we institute a K-12 curriculum for alcohol consumption? Teach the kids the history of distillation; label identification; famous inebriates through history; responsible tippling?

    I’m very serious. Comparing these two issues is a worthwhile exercise, and worthy of debate.

  16. Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 12/14/2011 - 06:29 pm.

    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.


  17. Submitted by Eric Hall on 12/15/2011 - 12:48 am.

    Thomas – no, you are right. I don’t think we need to go to that extreme with alcohol or with teaching about homosexuality in school. But using my analogy, imagine if the school took a neutral stance on drinking in school, but only when someone actually came forward and said they were an alcoholic did they get them some help. We would often be waiting until it was too late. We also don’t need to teach an entire semester of the history of alcohol (although the history is interesting!). There is a balance.

    Now I know where we are going to differ. You have some notion that being gay is somehow harmful or unnatural. It isn’t. There is no evidence of that. Even if I were to agree with you and say it isn’t all genetic, there is no harm to a person being in a relationship with another person of the same sex if it makes both of them happy.

    So again, I’m not advocating that we put an entire semester of curriculum teaching the history, current state, trends, etc of the LGBT community. I’m simply saying that it is a good libertarian ideal that an LGBT student has the right to the pursuit of happiness like any other American and we should not stand in their way of that, nor should we allow any bully to stand in their way either. To standby neutral is to watch one person violate another’s right to be free from force and fraud.

  18. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/15/2011 - 09:45 am.

    “So again, I’m not advocating that we put an entire semester of curriculum teaching the history, current state, trends, etc of the LGBT community.”

    Ah, but that is *exactly and precisely* what the agenda is, Eric. And on this you don’t need to take my word.

    Google “Out4Good Minneapolis school district” and “Out4Equity Saint Paul school district”.

    These programs are impimented by a full time staff starting with kids in the 3rd grade.

    Both of these are direct result of successful “anti-bullying” campaigns in those districts.

    If you are sincere about not wanting a full curriculum, then you begin to understand the objections to this latest campaign.

    A simple policy of zero tolerence towards bullying will not satisfy the pro-homosexual interest groups involved; it’s the full court press.

    And for those of you that don’t understand why Anoka-Hennepin is being targeted, please understand that AH has just overtaken Minneapolis as the state’s largest district.

    It just makes sense to focus your troops on the largest target.

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