Officials for the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota have announced that they are mulling a change to a controversial policy that bans mention of sexuality in the classroom beyond discussing marriage and child rearing. The policy has seen the district become the subject of a lawsuit and a federal investigation after several teenage suicides and current pupils claiming that the district has failed to protect them from anti-LGBT bullying due to this policy.
The Anoka-Hennepin School Board is scheduled to hear a proposal Monday to delete the policy, which says such matters are best discussed at home. It would be replaced with one saying teachers and staff will not advocate personal beliefs on controversial topics.
District spokesman Brett Johnson said Wednesday the proposed change is meant to give teachers more clarification and is not in response to the lawsuit.
Johnson said the proposal is broader than current policy. A policy on keeping neutral on religious matters also would be eliminated and covered by the new policy.
“This is saying, don’t bring your personal beliefs into it (controversial topics),” Johnson said. “It’s not saying you can’t talk about them.”
The district has a unique policy relating to LGBT topics in that it instructs teachers to remain “neutral” on the subject of LGBTs, that is to say they cannot appear to affirm that being gay or trans is normal or acceptable but at the same time should not be seen to condemn pupils. As such there is no explicit ban on mentioning LGBTs in the classroom but the vague nature of the policy has nevertheless created a chilling atmosphere where LGBT pupils and LGBT-related issues are concerned.
The embattled school district is currently the subject of a lawsuit with several students claiming that because they were being bullied over their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity the policy meant that teachers were unable or unwilling to do anything to properly tackle the bullying. The district is also under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department over complaints of pervasive harassment in the district’s schools. This follows at least seven young people in the district having taken their own lives over the past two years, with a majority of those deaths attributed, at least in part, to bullying. However, district officials say neither the lawsuit nor the federal investigation have prompted the proposed change.
Some teachers in the district have apparently said they are quite optimistic about this proposed change.
However while praise has been meted out for the fact the district is at last tackling this policy, concern persists that in practical terms the new policy is still problematic for teachers.
What exactly is a “controversial” topic and where is the line drawn between discussing a matter like sexual orientation in a neutral way and introducing a personal bias? Also, what constitutes a personal bias? Is affirming that being gay or trans is normal and not a choice, which is consistent with scientific findings, regarded as advocacy or simply a statement of fact?
Based on these considerations critics argue the new policy could be just as problematic — and dangerous — as the previous one.
That said, the Southern Poverty Law Center has reportedly issued a statement on behalf of Plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the district, saying it was pleased that the policy is being re-evaluated. There was, however, no comment on whether the proposed change would be enough to answer the ongoing lawsuit.