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.
“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.”