Policy change has Anoka schools looking ahead

/ 16 February 2012 / jennifer

Maria Elena Baca, Star Tribune, February 16, 2012 –

Staffers and students wonder what it means for them.

The day after the Anoka-Hennepin School District dropped its most controversial policy, district officials were eager to move ahead.

“I think everybody is hopeful we can start this new chapter,” Superintendent Dennis Carlson said on Tuesday, after the school board replaced the “neutrality policy” on sexual orientation. “That’s what staff are hoping for; I think the kids are, too.”

The new Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy, posted on the district’s website, is effective immediately. In the next few days, staff will get a memo and then written and personal follow-ups from principals, department heads and other supervisors; lack of clarity was a common complaint from staff about the neutrality policy.

The new policy bars teachers from attempting “in the course of their professional duties to persuade students to adopt or reject any particular viewpoint,” within a range of “contentious” issues. It also calls on them to present information in an impartial, balanced and objective manner and “affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students,” within a number of subcategories, including race, national origin and sexual orientation.

The neutrality policy required the staff to be neutral on issues of sexual orientation. Some teachers called it confusing; others said its vagueness contributed to a climate that tolerated bullying of gay and lesbian students. Supporters and foes of the policy raised concerns about its replacement — on one end that teachers would be muzzled, and on the other that they would infuse lessons with homosexual “propaganda.”

School board President Tom Heidemann said on Tuesday that neither would happen.

Teachers can voice opinions under the new rule but must do so in a way that opens a discussion, rather than closing it down with grand pronouncements. Teachers who force their opinions on students could face repercussions, he said, adding that curricula will not be changed.

Remaining issues

While district officials look ahead, unfinished business remains from the neutrality policy, formally the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy.

For one thing, a lawsuit that includes a demand for its repeal remains in mediation. Though the district said scrapping the policy was not linked to the suit, that move clears another barrier to a settlement. Another round of mediation with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights is set for March 1.

Also still in the board’s hands is a set of demands presented last month by the Parents Action League, linked to the end of the neutrality policy. Among other things, the league called on the district to offer resources for “reparative therapy” and information linking homosexuality to sexually transmitted disease. After Monday’s board meeting, league president Laurie Thompson said she hoped the board would now respond.

Heidemann said that the demands have been on the back burner and that the board and district would look more closely at them.

At the schools

On the ground, Anoka High School math teacher Paul Kelley said that while he thinks the new policy is “a darn sight better,” he worries that any policy at all will create a chilling effect for teachers’ ability to bond with students.

“When we look back at the teachers who have had a positive effect on us when we were in school, it’s probably not the teacher who taught us that the diagonals of a rhombus are perpendicular bisectors of each other,” said Kelley, also the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club mentor. “It’s probably the teacher who made the personal connection, who made sure we knew they cared about us as individuals.”

He said he didn’t expect the new rule to change the way he teaches.

Student Kayla Millard, an officer in the GSA, said the change probably was off the radar of most of her peers.

“I don’t think a lot of people in our school necessarily pay attention to that sort of thing unless it’s up in their face. For me and my friends, it’s right up in our faces, and it will influence our lives more than other people’s. I do think people will start to notice.”

After school Tuesday at Champlin Park High School, sophomore Annalise Lamberty predicted “more of an accepting kind of vibe.”

“Through a different policy, though enabling teachers to talk about it, that it will make people more aware of their surroundings and that people are different and people aren’t all heterosexual,” she said. It will be good to promote acceptance.”

But sophomore Winnie Nyakaru didn’t share her optimism. “It’s just being part of high school,” she said. Bullying is “a part of Champlin Park, at least. I personally don’t think that the new policy will change the bullying here, but we can always hope.”

Carlson noted that neither healing nor change happens quickly.

“When I’ve talked with the kids in the GSAs, I heard a lot of expressions of not feeling safe, but also being bullied and harassed for being gay,” he said. “That climate and that environment being changed is not something that happens overnight. It happens only if the whole community is behind it and people get off the political rhetoric and the name-calling and move on.”

Kaitlyn Walsh contributed to this report. Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409