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 arose in the classroom, replacing it with a policy designed to create respectful discussion about controversial topics.
With only one dissenting vote, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board on Monday 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 old policy had the support of some parents who believe homosexual conduct is immoral and who worried that their children might be taught otherwise.
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.
"This policy is truly a compromise," board member Scott Wenzel said after more than an hour of testimony from more than 20 people. "And I truly hope that it will move this district and community forward."
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.
The debate over how teachers should handle controversial classroom topics ballooned after 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 investigation found no evidence that bullying contributed to the deaths, but the district changed its anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in 2010 to state that harassment or bullying of gay students wouldn't be tolerated.
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.
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 welcoming environment for all students.
Barb Anderson, of Champlin, spoke up for parents who supported the neutrality policy. She asked the board not to give in to demands to change it.
"We are at a crossroads. You either cave in to 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," Anderson said.
The new policy takes effect immediately in the district of about 38,500 students and 2,800 teachers. It may speed settlements of two lawsuits filed by students, former students and parents over the neutrality policy.
The next round of mediation in those lawsuits is March 1 and 2. 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 generally applauding the policy change.