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Minnesota School District Changes Policy Blamed for Bullying

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From guest blogger Nirvi Shah:

The Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota on Monday night ended a policy in which teachers had to remain neutral if issues of sexual identity came up in class.

The board replaced the policy, blamed for contributing to a school culture that led to the bullying, and eventually the suicides, of several gay students, with one that promotes "a respectful learning environment in which teachers facilitate student discussions of contentious topics in a balanced and impartial manner," the school district said.

Minnesota's largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin has been under investigation by the federal Department of Education's office for civil rights since 2010.

The district's former neutrality policy was created in 2009 to undo a 1995 directive to teachers that said homosexuality would not be taught as a "normal, valid lifestyle".

Soon after adopting its new policy, the school district settled a lawsuit brought by a high school student taking classes at Anoka Technical College who was harassed by two teachers during the 2007-08 school year, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights has said. One of the teachers singled out the student almost daily in the presence of other students, saying his "boat floats in a different direction than the rest of the guys in the class," and his "fence swings both ways," a report by the group said.

The new policy, called the Respectful Learning Environment-Curriculum policy is intended to establish the dignity and self-worth of all students.

"I believe our teachers always have the best interests of students at heart. [This policy] provides the reassurance that our teachers will continue to do that," school board member Scott Wenzel said in a statement on the school district website.

Board member Kathy Tingelstad, the only one to vote against the new policy, said the board could have done more to appease parents and others who opposed the change, the St. Cloud Times reported.

"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 told the newspaper.

The policy opens with a commitment to a safe and respectful learning environment for all students and an education that respects all students and their families. It says teachers must follow the board-adopted curriculum and acknowledges that political, religious, social or economic issues may be contentious in a learning environment "in which conflicting views are held by a broad segment of people in our schools, our community and our nation," the school district said.

The new policy says the district does not take positions on these issues and that staff shall not attempt to "persuade students to adopt or reject any particular viewpoint with respect to these issues."

When contentious issues are discussed, the conversations must be appropriate for the developmental level of students, related to the course content, and presented in a balanced manner with varying points of view, the district said. They should be designed to help students "think critically and develop decision-making skills and techniques for examining and understanding differing opinions."

And during these discussions, staff "shall affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students," the policy states.

Julie Blaha, president of the Anoka-Hennepin local of the teachers union Education Minnesota, said the months of discussions about the old policy may be more important than the new policy because those talks raised awareness about bullying, the Times reported. She said the next step will be for teachers to discuss how they will translate the policy into a safe, welcoming environment for all students.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which sued the district over its old policy last July, applauded the new policy in a statement.

"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," it read.

But the new policy faces potential challenges. The Parents Action League, formed in support of the old policy, had asked the school board to provide the same level of support to Christian and "ex-homosexual" students as it does to gay students, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

"I am not as confident as the board that this policy will prevent homosexual propaganda from flooding the classrooms," the group's president, Laurie Thompson, said, calling the policy vote "a big disappointment."

She said her group is waiting for the district to respond before deciding whether to sue.

But Superintendent Dennis Carlson said the district made the right choice, the Pioneer Press reported.

"This was a good decision," he told the paper. "Some of our students have not felt safe for some time and we have to make sure not only that they feel safe, but that they are safe."

Photo: Cherie Cullum uses her hands to explain to Anoka school board chair Tom Heidemann, right, and vice chair John Hoffman that she wishes the left and the right will come together during a discussion on the "Respectful Learning Environment" policy during a school board meeting at the Anoka County School District headquarters in Coon Rapids, Minn. (Renee Jones Schneider/The Star Tribune/AP)

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