COON RAPIDS, Minn. — Leaders in Minnesota's largest school district said the long debate over how teachers should handle discussions about sexual orientation probably had a bigger impact than a new policy will.
The Anoka-Hennepin School District replaced a policy requiring teachers to be neutral in discussions about sexual orientation with a new one requiring them to foster a respectful learning environment for all students.
The change came after six students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District committed suicide in less than two years. Some had been bullied, and some were either gay or seen as gay.
Julie Blaha, president of the district teachers union, said the debate over the old policy, which was blamed for contributing to the harassment of gay students, may prove to be more important than the new policy itself.
"It's got people thinking about, `OK, what am I going to do in my classroom differently?' ... We're all thinking about this more deeply now," Blaha said.
The policy adopted Monday night says teachers shouldn't try to persuade students to adopt a particular viewpoint when contentious political, religious, social or economic issues come up. It calls for teachers instead to foster respectful exchanges that affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
The old policy said sexual orientation wasn't part of the curriculum and was best addressed outside the schools, but teachers should to stay neutral if it came up in student-led discussions. The policy had strong support from some conservatives who believe homosexual conduct is immoral and don't want public schools to teach their children it isn't, but it also led to two lawsuits alleging the policy was a gag order that prevented teachers from taking effective action against bullying.
Anoka High School senior Rachael Hawley, who led a petition drive that collected more than 350 signatures from students opposed to the neutrality policy, said she's not certain the new policy will make a big difference because some teachers could still feel constrained.
"Hopefully it will open the door to more discussion," Hawley said. "I think that would be the best difference right now."
While the district's internal investigation found no evidence that bullying contributed to the suicides, the district amended its anti-bullying policies in October 2010 to clearly state that harassment or bullying of gay students would not be tolerated.
The new policy may help clear the way for a settlement in the lawsuits, which were filed last July by students and former students who contend the district failed to protect them from severe physical and verbal abuse.
"The repeal of this policy is an important first step, but the District must do much more to create a safe, welcoming, and respectful learning environment for all students, including LGBT and gender non-conforming students, and those perceived as such," said a statement from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which are representing the plaintiffs.
The original lawsuits sought not only an end to the neutrality policy but asked the court to award unspecified cash damages and order more effective protections, such as better training. Both sides have been keeping the settlement discussions confidential. U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau has scheduled the next round for March 1 and 2.
Superintendent Dennis Carlson and Blaha said they expect long discussions ahead as administrators and teachers figure out what the new policy means in practice.
District spokesman Brett Johnson said Tuesday that teachers are already trained to manage classroom discussions.
"You're going to have times when kids go off topic and you've got to get them refocused. That's a basic teaching skill," Johnson said. If a student makes a disrespectful or harassing comment, he added, teachers are trained to stop and explain why it was wrong. The new policy doesn't mention discipline, but Johnson said the student code of conduct would kick in with escalating consequences if a student went too far.
Carlson said he agrees the long debate – plus the stronger anti-bullying policy – probably has made more of a difference already than the new policy will. But he knows his northern Twin Cities suburban district will be watched closely for how the changes work in practice.
"It's not a local issue. It's a national issue, it's an issue in any public school in America," Carlson said. "At the end of the day we need to have our gay kids safer in public schools. Apparently we're going to play a leadership role in that. And I'm fine with that. Our gay kids deserve not only a respectful learning environment, they deserve to be safe and feel safe in our schools."
Anoka-Hennepin School District policy information: http://www.anoka.k12.mn.us