Minnesota's largest school district may revise a controversial policy that prevents teachers and staff from discussing issues of sexual orientation. The consideration follows lawsuits against the district for alleged bullying of students for sexual orientation and gender nonconformity.
The Anoka-Hennepin school district's current policy states that sexual orientation not a part of the official curriculum and should be discussed outside the classroom. District employees "shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions." The policy was adopted in 2009 after two teachers were accused of harassing a student they thought was gay.
The newly proposed policy is broader in scope, and the school board will consider the draft Monday, according to the Associated Press. The title of "Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy" would be stricken and replaced with a "Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy," which states:
"The study of controversial topics shall contribute toward helping students develop techniques for examining controversy, be appropriate to maturity and developmental level of students, be of significance related to course content, and presented in an atmosphere free of bias and prejudice.
"Teachers and educational support staff shall not advocate personal beliefs or opinions regarding controversial topics in the course of their professional duties."
District spokesperson Brett Johnson told the Pioneer Press that the new policy would provide greater clarity on how teachers should address controversial issues in classrooms.
"This is not a new policy on sexual orientation, it is a policy on controversial issues," Johnson said. "It could be religion, it could be gun rights, it could be abortion."
School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann told Minnesota Public Radio that the changes would be "a little bit of a cleanup," noting that "it's really our goal for there to be no confusion."
But Tammy Aaberg, the outspoken mother of Justin Aaberg, who took his life last year at the age of 15 following alleged anti-gay bullying, says the proposed changes might be worse than the current policy.
"Religion and gun control might be things you can have an opinion on, but there is a lot of research out there that says that people [who are gay] are born that way," Aaberg told the Pioneer Press. "They are putting 'controversial' on a person with this policy, and to me, that seems worse than 'neutral.'"
The U.S. Department of Education has identified 16 "key components" in state bullying legislation, including a statement of scope, listing of enumerated groups, process of district policy review, definitions and reporting guidelines. Minnesota ranks last in the country with its state bullying law only covering two of the 16 components, according to an Education Department analysis of state bullying laws released Tuesday. Nebraska ranks second-to-last by covering four of the 16 components.
Statement of scope, one of the most common components of state bullying laws, establishes where legislation applies and what conditions must exist for schools to have authority over student conduct.
According to the Education Department report, Minnesota is one of just three states -- alongside Wisconsin and Arizona -- that prohibits bullying but doesn't define that behavior. The state also doesn't provide for its districts a model bullying policy, and at a mere 37 words, its anti-bullying law is the shortest one in the country:
Each school board shall adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying of any student. The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use.
Over the last two years, nine district students have committed suicide, several of whom were gay and reportedly acted as a result of being bullied, according The Minnesota Independent. Since then, students and community members have rallied and petitioned to reform the district's neutral policy regarding sexual orientation.
The situation in Anoka-Hennepin Schools is so bad that Minnesota public health officials have deemed the area a "suicide contagion" because of the unusually high number of suicides and attempted suicides, according to the school district's website.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights threatened to file suit against the district in May, arguing that Anoka-Hennepin is in violation of federal law for not fostering a safe educational environment for students. The SPLC called the district's policy a "gag rule," The Minnesota Independent reported. Johnson told the Pioneer Press this week that the district's new policy considerations are not a result of the lawsuits.
As stories and lawsuits against the district unfolded through the summer months, Bachmann stayed silent on the system's teen suicides.
But last month, Tammy Aaberg submitted to Bachmann's office a box carrying 141,000 petitioning signatures to request that the congresswoman denounce the anti-gay bullying that the mother said led to her then-15-year-old son's death.
Marking the first official public statement that Bachmann had issued that addresses gay bullying in Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin Schools, Bachmann's response to the mother's petition said that "bullying is wrong" and that she is "very aware and concerned about the cases of bullying and suicides that have occurred."
The Justice Department and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights have launched an investigation into allegations of civil rights laws violations and complaints of discrimination based on gender nonconformity.
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