District 11 hears new policy, welcomes comment

by Sue Austreng
Staff Writer

Determined to maintain a safe learning environment for all students, Anoka-Hennepin School District officials spent the weekend drafting a policy to replace the proposed controversial topics curriculum policy and presented it to school board members Jan. 23.

Anoka High School students Rachel Hawley and Emily Hall (unseen to Hawley’s right at the table) addressed Anoka-Hennepin School Board members after the first reading of the newly proposed respectful learning environment-curriculum policy. Twenty of Hawley and Hall’s classmates stood behind them to show support as they spoke to the board. Photo by Sue Austreng

District 11 legal counsel Paul Cady presented the first draft of the respectful learning environment-curriculum policy (RLE-CP), a policy, he said, that was designed to meet the intent of the school board while also responding to public input and reflecting academic research on how to best deal with issues of public controversy that may arise in the classroom.

Earlier readings of the previously proposed controversial topics curriculum policy hit a hot button with gay rights advocates, who said they believe the policy labels as “controversial” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students.

That word, has in fact, been eliminated from the new RLE-CP.

The newly proposed policy is in the best interest of all students and aligns clearly with the district’s mission and core values, said associate superintendents Jinger Gustafson and Jeff McGonigal.

It also focuses on providing a safe and welcoming environment by directing staff to “affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students.”

Paragraph three of the RLE-CP specifically identifies areas of contention and was written using federal law language. Paragraph four “emphasizes what not to do,” and paragraph five describes “how to address curricular discussions in the classroom,” Cady said.

McGonigal reviewed academic research on the best approach to dealing with topics that can become contentious in the classroom.

He noted that “the role of teachers is to present balanced information, to model respectful civil discourse, and allow for inquiry that will help students create or maintain their own opinions.”

Just moments after the board’s first reading of the RLE-CP, printed copies of the draft were distributed to some 100 citizens gathered in the board room.

And the floor was open for public comment.

However, only those who live within District 11 boundaries were allowed to speak and so, one-by-one, 18 community members came before the board.

Among them, two Anoka High School students, Emily Hawley and Rachel Hall, who came as one voice, a voice that echoed the 20 classmates who stood behind them in support as Hawley and Hall addressed board members.

Telling assembled board members that she and her classmates (many of them members of the high school’s Gay Straight Alliance group) were afraid the policy “would be twisted into a gag order,” Hawley said, “We hope you will have the best interest of students at heart.”

“We urge you to adopt a policy on what unites us, not on what divides us,” said Hall.

Others who spoke – whether gay rights advocates, members of the Parent Action League, attorneys, doctors, parents, teachers or students – reiterated a desire for equal treatment, respect and representation in curriculum included in Anoka-Hennepin schools.

Some asked that Anoka-Hennepin curriculum “get back to what matters,” as Bill Fields said when taking the mic during open forum.

“Get back to the basics of education: reading, writing… get back to what matters,” Fields said.

Jane Boster wants “all sex ed out of the schools,” she said.

“Parents are capable of teaching their children about sexuality…. Sexuality must be taught in the context of morality. Respect my right to teach my children,” Boster said.

And Cathy Tokle, a former elementary school teacher, said those lessons should be “kept in the home and in places of worship where they belong.”

When asked if there would be any change in the school district’s curriculum, Gustafson told board members that there would be “no change in current practice.”

“This (RLE-CP) policy validates the good practice our teachers have been using,” McGonigal said.

And Board Chairman Heidemann later confirmed those comments, saying, “Nothing changes as far as being balanced in curriculum. We have a community-based curriculum adoption process and Minnesota state standards sets the road map for curriculum. We conform to the state road map: community based, board adopted.”

The proposed respectful learning environment-curriculum policy will be on the board’s Feb. 13 meeting agenda as an action item, Heidemann said.

If approved, the RLE-CP would replace two policies: the sexual orientation curriculum policy in place since 2009 and the religious activities policy in place since 1983.

Heidemann said public comment is welcome and will be received until the board takes its vote on Feb. 13.

Testimony and comment can be delivered to board members via e-mail or regular mail.

Board members’ e-mail addresses are listed on the district’s website (www.anoka.k12.mn.us). Street address for Anoka-Hennepin School District is 11299 Hanson Blvd. N.W., Coon Rapids, MN 55433.

Respectful Learning Environment-Curriculum Policy DRAFT

*Note: The following is the draft policy written by the Anoka-Hennepin School District

The board is committed to providing a safe and respectful learning environment and to providing an education that respects all students and families.

It is the professional responsibility of the teacher to follow the board-adopted curriculum, which is designed to meet Minnesota state standards.

Political, religious, social, or economic issues may become contentious in a learning environment in which conflicting views are held by a broad segment of people in our schools, our community, and the nation.

It is not the district’s role to take positions on these issues. Teachers and educational support staff shall not attempt in the course of their professional duties to persuade students to adopt or reject any particular viewpoint with respect to these issues.

Curricular discussions of such issues shall be appropriate to the maturity and developmental level of students; be of significance to course content; and be presented in an impartial, balanced and objective manner, allowing respectful exchange of varying points of view. Lessons shall be designed to help students think critically and develop decision-making skills and techniques for examining and understanding differing opinions.

In the course of discussions of such issues, district staff shall affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of their race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex/gender, marital status, disability, status with regard to public assistance, sexual orientation, age, family care leave status or veteran status.

Sue Austreng is at [email protected]