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Petition seeks ouster of anti-gay activist from Anoka-Hennepin task force on bullying

“Safe schools for all youth doesn’t mean including a man with this guy’s well-documented history on the task force,” wrote one petitioner, Liz Oppenheimer.

Pressure is mounting school board Chair Tom Heidemann, center, to remove a vocal anti-gay activist from a district anti-bullying task force.
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins

In recent weeks yet another chapter has been opened in the controversy over the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s handling of bullying. A group of parents and students is petitioning school board Chair Tom Heidemann to remove a vocal anti-gay activist from a district anti-bullying task force.

A member of the Parents Action League (PAL), Bryan Lindquist demanded earlier this year that the district distribute information about gay conversion or “reparative” therapy. In September, California enacted a law banning the practice of the therapy, which is considered dangerous by mainstream medical and psychological groups, on children and teens.

“Safe schools for all youth doesn’t mean including a man with this guy’s well-documented history on the task force,” wrote one petitioner, Liz Oppenheimer. “While the intention is worthwhile, the impact of allowing Bryan Lindquist on the task force is horrifically insensitive.”

At the Oct. 22 meeting board member John Hoffman, elected to the state Senate as a DFLer last week despite PAL’s efforts, agreed.

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“Mr. Lindquist … has repeatedly spoken out against affirming all students and does not support the current policy. Mr. Lindquist has publicly stated that LGBT individuals suffer from a disorder,” he said. “This kind of language and sentiment has no place on this task force and does not represent the views of the vast majority of residents that I am talking to within the Anoka-Hennepin School District, and it certainly doesn’t represent the needs and rights of all students.”

Civil-rights suit settled in March

In March, in the wake of two years of increasing controversy over its response to a wave of suicides by students, some of whom were bullied for their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, the district settled a federal civil-rights suit and with the U.S. Department of Justice.

PAL had kept the district under intense pressure to maintain the policy of “curricular neutrality” many blamed for the climate linked to the suicides and to provide materials, training and referrals to staff and students about “curing” homosexuality.

Heidemann declined: “As a public school district, we accept all students and we do not consider them to have a disorder if they identify as gay or support their gay friends,” he wrote in reply to PAL’s January demands. Other group members told the board there would be repercussions for what they said were broken campaign promises to maintain the controversial neutrality policy.

Reply to conservative critics

A month after the settlement’s announcement, Heidemann replied to critics who had taken him to task on the conservative website Anoka County Watchdog. “It was a very difficult decision to agree to the settlement but it was the best we could do given the circumstances the school board was faced with,” he wrote.

“In my opinion we preserved several core principles: The Board maintained the intent of the sexual orientation curriculum policy while making it defensible in future legal challenges. The Board did not make any changes to curriculum and did not allow the federal government authority over classroom curriculum.

Prior to the settlement, the board had proposed the creation of an anti-bullying task force, which is not a part of the landmark court-approved agreement that ended the lawsuit and the federal investigation. Applications to serve were solicited last summer with Heidemann making the appointments in August. The group will make recommendations next spring, although it is not clear they will have an impact on the implementation of the terms of the settlement.   

For its part, the PAL does not appear ready to stand down. Its website includes a link to a “student opt-out notice” parents supposedly can use to remove their children from activities in which “such personally objectionable material is taught, discussed, or assigned.”

Parents can choose school, but can’t dictate

A well-worn body of law — most recently misconstrued in TV ads aired here in support of the failed marriage amendment — holds that  parents can choose whether to send their children to public schools, but can’t dictate what or how they are taught.

Continued acrimony at the board level notwithstanding, many of the critics who pushed for the changes report that they are pleased so far at the way school climate issues are being addressed by the district.