COON RAPIDS, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota's largest school district has abandoned a much-criticized policy that required teachers to remain neutral when issues of sexual identity came up in the classroom and replaced it with one that's meant to foster a respectful learning environment for all students, gay or straight, religious or not, liberal or conservative.
With only one dissenting vote, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board on Monday night dropped a policy that is the subject of two lawsuits by critics who contend it muzzled teachers and prevented them from holding effective discussions to reduce bullying against students who are gay or perceived to be gay.
The new policy says when contentious political, religious, social matters or economic issues come up — it does not specifically cite sexuality issues — teachers shouldn't try to persuade students to adopt a particular viewpoint. It calls for teachers to foster respectful exchanges of views. It also says in such discussions, staff should affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
Rachael Hawley, a senior at Anoka High School who led a petition drive against the old policy, said she isn't sure how much of a difference the new "Respectful Learning Environment" policy will make in the long run but hopes it opens the door to better discussions.
Julie Blaha, president of the Anoka-Hennepin local of the teachers union Education Minnesota, said the months of discussions about the old policy may prove to be more important than the language of the new policy itself because of the awareness raised about the problems of bullying. She said the new policy sets a better tone, and the next step will be for teachers to discuss how they'll translate it into a safe, welcoming environment for all students.
After hearing more than an hour of often impassioned testimony from more than 20 people on both sides, including Hawley and Blaha, board member Scott Wenzel welcomed the change.
"This policy is truly a compromise," Wenzel said. "And I truly hope that it will move this district and community forward."
The district, which is the target of two lawsuits over the old policy, has found itself in the national spotlight over the issue, and board member Kathy Tingelstad and several parents who testified said they didn't appreciate it.
"I just think we could have done a lot better job," Tingelstad told reporters after she cast the lone no vote. "I think we were being pushed by outside influences that were outside of our school district. I know we're setting some national standards here tonight but I'm disappointed," she said, adding that the board could have better addressed the concerns of those who testified against the change.
Blaha told the board the new policy could just become buried among all the district's other policies, or it could become "the first few paragraphs of a new chapter ... in which everybody feels safe and welcome at school. A chapter where it is clear that every student, staff member and family is valued for who they are. And a chapter full of rigorous conversations between professionals about how to improve our school climate."
The old neutrality policy had the support of parents who believe homosexual conduct is immoral and told the board they don't want their children taught otherwise. Barb Anderson, of Champlin, asked the board not to give in to demands for changing it.
"If you pass a policy with weak language of appeasement, the gay agenda will be given an even greater foothold in our school district," Anderson said. "We are at a crossroads. You either cave in the demands of the homosexual activists, an action that will make our schools unsafe for all kids, or you stand firm and protect the children."
The old policy had been under fire since six students in the district committed suicide in less than two years. A parent of one of the students who committed suicide says her son was bullied for being gay. Gay advocacy groups say some of the others students who killed themselves were also bullied. The district has said its internal investigation found no evidence that bullying contributed to the deaths. But the district changed its anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in October 2010 to clearly state that harassment or bullying of gay students wouldn't be tolerated.
The district has about 38,500 students and 2,800 teachers.
The new policy takes effect immediately and might move two lawsuits filed by students, former students and parents against the neutrality policy closer to settlement. U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau has scheduled the next round of mediation for March 1 and 2 in the Both sides have been keeping those discussions confidential, but the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which are representing the plaintiffs, issued a statement applauding the policy change.
"Today is the first day in nearly 18 years that Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District no longer has a harmful policy that singles out lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. Although we would have preferred for the District to have repealed this stigmatizing policy without replacing it, we are pleased that the new policy expressly requires district staff to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, including LGBT students," the statement said. "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."