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Anoka-Hennepin: From ‘neutrality’ to proposed language underscoring respect for all

Groups on both side of the issue were dissatisfied with a recent change in the district’s neutrality policy.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the groups demanding that the Anoka-Hennepin School District maintain its policy of “curricular neutrality” on issues related to sexual orientation ended up illustrating most vividly exactly why neutrality, in this context, is not neutral at all?

A quick recap: In December, the district announced it was considering scrapping the neutrality policy, which has been at the center of increasing controversy in the wake of a rash of suicides by bullied students. In the policy’s place, administrators proposed a rule that would require staff to remain neutral on controversial subjects.

No one liked that proposal. Advocates for LGBT kids and families complained their identities were being categorized as controversial, and teachers complained that it was no clearer than the neutrality policy.

Earlier this month, one of the groups of religious conservatives supporting neutrality delivered a resolution to the board demanding that it match virtually every step taken in the last year toward creating an environment that’s safe for LGBT students with a counter-move.

Resolution demands

Among other moves, the Parents Action League demanded the district train staff on “overcoming sexual disorders,” provide “professional development opportunities in which philosophical, pedagogical, and political assumptions of GLBT advocacy are critically examined,” “provide the history of gay-related immune deficiency (GRID), AIDS, and the medical consequences of homosexual acts” and “provide pro-family, ex-homosexual and ex-transgender videos to secondary media centers.”

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Earlier this week, the district released a proposed Respectful Learning Environment policy [PDF] that commits the district to “providing a safe and respectful learning environment and to providing an education that respects all students and families.”

It spells out exactly who “all” is. “In the course of discussions of such issues, district staff shall affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of their race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex/gender, marital status, disability, status with regard to public assistance, sexual orientation, age, family care leave status or veteran status.”

Guidance to staff

And there is guidance on how staff can lead the kinds of discussions that have previously had them running for the teachers’ lounge.

“Political, religious, social, or economic issues may become contentious in a learning environment in which conflicting views are held by a broad segment of people in our schools, our community, and the nation,” the proposed policy says.

“It is not the District’s role to take positions on these issues. Teachers and educational support staff shall not attempt in the course of their professional duties to persuade students to adopt or reject any particular viewpoint with respect to these issues.”

Four of the six board members are on record supporting the proposal. There is speculation that the board changed its Feb. 13 work session, where the prospect is scheduled to come up, to a meeting to put an end to the debate. Board members cannot vote on policy during regularly scheduled work sessions, only regular meetings.

A professor of counselor education at Minnesota State Mankato, Walter Roberts, called the proposal a clear step forward.

‘A strong signal’

“It sends a strong signal that the district recognizes the plurality of the many different families that the district serves within the community,” he said yesterday. “It’s very important that kids receive the message that adults in the district are there to provide a safe space and a place where they can be who they are.”

Teachers union members are having conversations and will come up with a position in coming weeks. Julie Blaha, the president of Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota, said she remains convinced the neutrality policy should be scrapped and does not need to be replaced by anything.

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“But if a new policy if what it takes for the district to get on with its work, we can live with this,” she said, explaining that it replicates guidance already contained in other policies.

The same ideas, she added, also “show up in very basic training about how we conduct ourselves in the classroom.”

The Parents Action League declined MinnPost’s request for comment yesterday, but its leaders have expressed misgivings about the proposed policy to other news media, calling it “vague” and noting that it would not keep “the teaching and celebration of homosexuality and other unhealthy behaviors” out of schools.