by Sue Austreng
With hearts on their sleeves and students’ well-being in mind, dozens of people stepped up to the mic during the open forum portion of the Jan. 9 meeting of the Anoka-Hennepin School Board.
Over the course of two hours some three dozen people delivered urgent messages regarding the board’s proposed controversial topics curriculum policy, a policy that would replace the existing sexual orientation curriculum policy, or so-called neutrality policy.
The proposed policy states that teachers “shall not advocate personal beliefs or opinions regarding controversial topics…”
That term – controversial – hits a hot button with gay rights advocates, who believe the policy labels as “controversial” students of the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender variety.
“Who decides what is controversial? There is no scientific evidence that homosexuality is controversial, so who decides it,” Coon Rapids resident Dan Rebek asked board members.
After conducting a review of the policies with members of Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota, District 11 teachers union president Julie Blaha asked board members the same question.
“The term ‘controversial’ needs clarification,” Blaha said. “We want it clear that an issue can be considered controversial, but our students’ identities are never a controversial issue.”
Blaha presented to board members the teachers’ overview, which supports elimination of the sexual orientation curriculum policy and expresses their belief that the proposed controversial topics curriculum policy is not needed.
Following the open forum portion of the Jan. 9 meeting, Superintendent Dennis Carlson stated that the proposed policy is directed at curriculum not at individuals.
“Individuals are not controversial. We value and respect each of our students,” Carlson said.
During her open forum address, Blaha invited board members to sit down with teachers to discuss their views on the policies.
Board members later expressed their desire to continue the discussion.
Rachel Hawley and Emily Hall, students at Anoka High School, presented board members with a 340-signature petition during their open forum appearance. The petition asks that the sexual orientation curriculum policy be removed.
“We talk about this a lot and I think the board should listen to us (students),” Hall said.
Others who addressed board members Monday evening called the term controversial “inflammatory” and feared that the proposed policy would only “fan the flames” of disrespect and criticism that are already burning.
Some – including members of the Parent Action League, metro-area clergy and parents of current or former District 11 students – said teachers should remain neutral and conversations about controversial topics should take place in the home.
“Leave matters of faith and values where they belong – in the home. Allow students to focus on academics in the classroom,” said Bill Fields of Andover.
Others who spoke during open forum urged board members to let teachers speak freely about religion, faith, lifestyle and core values.
“If you can’t discuss these things with teachers, for some students you take away the only ‘safe person’ they can talk to these things about,” said Anoka High School junior Kira Martin.
After open mic had ended and other agenda items had been addressed, board members spoke about the proposed controversial topics curriculum policy.
“We need to define controversial,” Carlson said. “We need to examine how we address the ability to value all students. We need to keep the focus on academic curriculum.”
The proposed policy makes it clear that teachers should not advocate their personal beliefs, he said.
“Students then feel freer to express their opinions,” Carlson said.
“When topics are identified as controversial, we want students to feel free to study, investigate and approach those topics in a spirit of inquiry, not of judgment.”
When Boardmember Kathy Tingelstad recommended keeping the existing sexuality orientation curriculum policy, Carlson warned that the existing policy only deals with one area, sexual orientation. That can create the perception that it is a discriminatory policy, he said.
And so it seems some, including board members, want to keep the existing policy, some want to rescind it and all seem to have questions.
“As we tried to make it more clear, we just made it more bureaucratic,” said Boardmember Scott Wenzel.
“I’m not sure the board knows what it’s trying to achieve. I don’t know if we know what we want to accomplish in the classroom,” he said.
Describing the two sides to the story, Boardmember Michael Sullivan said, “One wants to leave it (the sexual orientation curriculum policy) alone, one wants to get rid of it all together. Both (sides) are saying they are confused.”
“We need to craft the best language we can and establish a process to unconfuse.”
With many uncertainties and much confusion, School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said that the board needed more time to examine and perhaps reword the policy.
“We will continue this discussion,” Heidemann said.
The earliest the board could vote on the proposed policy would be during its Jan. 23 regular meeting.
In the meantime, board members can be reached by visiting www.anoka.k12.mn.us. Click on “school board” to access board members’ e-mail addresses.
Sue Austreng is at firstname.lastname@example.org