Teachers in the Anoka-Hennepin school district have spoken out against proposed changes to the district’s failed policy that effectively bans mentioning LGBTs in the classroom, saying that the new policy which bans ‘controversial’ topics would amount to the same thing.
The teachers union of Minnesota’s largest school district urged the school board at a meeting on Monday night to drop both the new “controversial topics” ban as well as the old policy, officially termed as a “neutrality policy” but often referred to as the “don’t say gay” gag rule by opponents, which has been heavily criticized for allowing anti-LGBT bullying to persist in the district.
Julie Blaha, president of the Anoka-Hennepin district’s local of the Education Minnesota union, told the board 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.
Around 80 people turned up to the meeting and, according to the AP, none supported the new policy. Two Anoka High School seniors, Rachel Hawley and Emily Hall, also presented petitions to the board. The petitions, signed by over 350 students, advocated abandoning the “neutrality” policy and also scrapping its “controversial topics” replacement.
Even those against homosexuality said they would rather keep the old policy than have a vague new policy.
The district currently has a unique stance relating to LGBT topics in that it instructs teachers to remain “neutral,” 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 policy has nevertheless created a chilling atmosphere where LGBT pupils and LGBT-related issues are concerned because teachers feel their jobs might be in danger if they violate the rule and have instead, critics argue, been turning a blind eye to anti-LGBT bullying.
The embattled school district is currently the subject of two lawsuits 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.
That is not to say that the ban on “controversial topics” hasn’t received some support. When first proposed, the concept was said to have found cautious favor with some teachers, but the question remained over whether teachers would feel sufficiently confident under the new policy to act against LGBT bullying and, moreover, prevent it in the future when they still would not be able to affirm LGBT identity.
The school board is expected to vote on the new policy on January 23.