By STEVE KARNOWSKI
COON RAPIDS, Minn. – The teachers union in Minnesota’s largest school district urged its school board to drop a proposed policy on handling controversial topics in the classroom, saying educators should be trusted to mediate student discussions about sexual orientation and other issues.
The board proposed the change to replace a current policy that requires teachers to remain neutral when the topic of human sexuality comes up during class. Some people believe the current policy, which is being challenged by two lawsuits, fosters bullying of gay students.
The policy came under fire after six students in the district committed suicide in less than two years. The district in the northern Twin Cities suburbs has about 38,500 students and 2,800 teachers.
Julie Blaha, president of the Anoka-Hennepin district’s local of the Education Minnesota union, told the board on Monday that the union supports dropping the current policy. She called the discussion “a good step” toward improving the climate for discussing contentious issues.
But she said the proposed replacement- which would require teachers to refrain from stating their views on controversial topics- isn’t needed and should at least be changed so that students’ identities aren’t defined as controversial.
“We need to clearly differentiate between what is an issue and what is somebody’s identity. We agree that teachers should not promote a personal agenda in the classroom. Our role’s not to tell students what to think but help them think more deeply,” Blaha said.
About 80 people attended Monday night’s meeting, and more than 30 people testified- none in favor of the proposed change- including several parents and clergy members who argued for maintaining the existing neutrality policy. They said it was the best way to respect the views of conservative and religious students and families who believe homosexuality is immoral.
Mary Jane Milless, of Coon Rapids, said she sent her children to a parochial school through the eighth grade so they would be educated in keeping with their family’s faith. She said she doesn’t think it’s the role of their public high school to teach them things that conflict with those values.
“I don’t want my kids educated on morality at Coon Rapids High School. I want them educated on the basics,” said Milless, who works in an elementary school cafeteria.
Rabbi Chaim Goldberger, of St. Louis Park, said the board is being bullied into backing down because of the threat of legal action.
“How ironic that you might think you can overcome a bullying problem by capitulating to bullies yourselves,” Goldberger said.
But clergy members were not unanimous. The Rev. Margo Richardson, a Christian Church-Disciples of Christ pastor from Coon Rapids, said teachers need the tools to stop the bullying of gay students.
“There is no neutral or middle-of-the-road position here,” said Richardson, who is openly gay and in a committed long-term relationship. “You either believe it is OK for some students to die so others won’t be made uncomfortable, or you don’t. Gay students deserve the same respect for who they are that every other student in this district gets. Craft a policy that protects students’ lives, not a policy that protects prejudice.”
Anoka High School seniors Rachel Hawley and Emily Hall presented the board with petitions that they said were signed by more than 350 students in favor of dropping the existing policy and scrapping the proposed replacement. Hawley said both policies limit the ability of teachers to talk openly with their students about issues facing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.
School board members are scheduled to vote on the proposed change Jan. 23, but Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said that could be delayed to clarify the language. He said he wasn’t sure the wording accomplishes the goal of defusing the issue.
Its current policy states that the topic of sexual orientation isn’t part of the curriculum and is best addressed outside the schools. If the issue comes up during student-led discussions, teachers are to remain neutral.
Two lawsuits filed by students, former students and parents allege that the current neutrality policy effectively silences teachers and prevents them from protecting students who are gay or perceived as gay.
The proposed new policy states that the district “recognizes the importance of providing information about controversial topics in a democracy” but that “teachers and educational support staff shall not advocate personal beliefs or opinions regarding controversial topics in the course of their professional duties.”
It’s not clear how the proposed new policy would affect settlement talks in the lawsuit because both sides have agreed to keep the discussions confidential, although the plaintiffs welcomed the new proposal as a step forward when it came out last month. Board members have said the new policy is not a response to the lawsuit.