by Sue Austreng
In ongoing efforts to ensure a safe learning environment for each of its nearly 40,000 students, Anoka-Hennepin School Board members adopted a respectful learning environment-curriculum policy (RLE-CP) at their Feb. 13 meeting.
The policy, adopted by the board with a 5-1 vote, directs teachers to facilitate student discussions of contentious topics in a balanced and impartial manner that encourages development of critical thinking and decision-making skills.
Boardmember Kathy Tingelstad cast the one vote opposing the adoption of the RLE-CP. She later said she thought there should have been more public testimony, perhaps a question-answer period.
“I think we could have done a better job,” Tingelstad said. “We were pushed by outside influences, outside the district.”
“It’s difficult because I feel it’s an issue that defines our community and there were so many influences from outside our community,” she said.
The respectful learning environment policy was adopted Monday evening after more than two months of discussion and hours of public input regarding replacement of the district’s sexual orientation curriculum policy (SOCP).
Some teachers felt that the SOCP was confusing and others expressed concern that it singled out, and discriminated against, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and staff.
The RLE-CP, according to district legal counsel Paul Cady, meets the intent of the board, responds to public input and reflects academic research on how to best deal with issues of public controversy that may arise in the classroom.
The policy opens with this statement: “The board is committed to providing a safe and respectful learning environment and to providing an education that respects all students and families.”
The policy closes by stating that staff “shall affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students.”
The RLE-CP was adopted without any of the changes suggested after the Jan. 23 first reading by Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota (AHEM), the district’s teachers union.
The policy will be rolled out to district staff, teachers and principals by e-mail. Questions and concerns will be delivered to district administration and principals will be directed to keep teachers accountable to following the guidelines of the policy.
“We need to be vigilant as we roll out the policy… make sure the policy sets the right tone, and we look forward to meeting with board members regularly to ensure a successful implementation,” said Julie Blaha, AHEM president.
“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,” said Boardmember Scott Wenzel.
During an open forum session Monday evening, 29 community members addressed school board members.
Much of the debate focused on whether being gay is a lifestyle choice or is it something you’re born with, like brown or blue eyes, right- or left-handed.
Those who believe it is a lifestyle choice warned school board members that changing or eliminating the SOCP policy would allow gay activists to recruit students into a “dangerous and risky lifestyle.”
Several LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) supporters, including members of the district’s Gay Equity Team, thanked the board for being willing to shift gears.
While some who addressed the board said they believe no policy is necessary, they did say they believe the RLE-CP is a “step forward.”
The journey to RLE-CP
The adoption of the RLE-CP represents another milestone on the district’s journey toward a bully-free community.
That journey has been marked with conflict and opposition, misunderstanding and confusion.
District 11 spokesmen would also say recent misrepresentation of the district has added “fuel to the fire.”
Case in point: A Rolling Stone magazine article proclaims Anoka-Hennepin School District is at “war with gay teens.”
Superintendent Dennis Carlson called the article a “brutal and distorted attack.”
The article, published online Feb. 2, paints a tragic picture, suggesting that failure to stop bullying in the schools ultimately caused seven gay or perceived to be gay Anoka-Hennepin students to take their own lives.
The article further implies that Anoka-Hennepin administration panders to “anti-gay crusaders” and has an attitude that “gay kids simply don’t deserve protection.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, said Ellen Perrault, communications specialist for District 11 who gathered reaction from district administrators and released a statement from the district in response to the Rolling Stones article.
The article, Perrault said, presents a “grossly distorted portrayal of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, its schools and its communities.”
District 11 operates several bully/harassment prevention programs which are detailed on the district’s website, www.anoka.k12.mn.us.
As Barry Scanlan, teaching and learning specialist for prevention and equity, puts it, “Prevention programming is designed to ensure the safety and well-being of each and every one of the students in Anoka-Hennepin Schools. Prevention programs enhance the classroom and school environment in a way that assures the student feels safe and will achieve academically. Programs are age-specific, developmentally appropriate and culturally sensitive.”
In addition to the eight programs detailed on Scanlan’s page, the district’s website includes seven more bullying prevention initiatives.
Not only that, Anoka-Hennepin’s website lists 11 different links recommended as further sources for prevention of bullying and harassment. Those links include GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), Operation Respect, Teaching Tolerance, the Trevor Project, and more.
And so it would appear, contrary to the Rolling Stone article’s insertion that District 11 staff believe “gay kids simply don’t deserve protection,” District 11 has taken many strides toward protecting its students, no matter their real or perceived sexual orientation.
In fact, without hesitation, school board members echo Carlson’s demands that staff “intervene in all instances of bullying or harassment.”
Training for staff
Training has also been provided for staff, and the district also contacted CLIMB Theatre, asking it to write a series of vignettes of typical bullying and harassment situations to show teachers how they can effectively address them.
Those vignettes were created with input collected from District 11 teachers and performed for all secondary teachers during a January staff development day.
Furthermore, District 11 administration enforces an anti-bullying/anti-harassment policy in addition to the RLE-CP adopted Feb. 13.
“Staff are required to intervene in all instances of bullying or harassment. If they do not they can be disciplined,” Perrault said.
Even with seemingly endless efforts to prevent bullying, bullying still happens.
“We know that students have been bullied and that students have used inappropriate language. We take action when we get reports of bullying or students using harassing language and there are consequences. In some cases, students have been expelled for persistent bullying,” Perrault said.
And in extreme cases, where students have taken their own lives, the district immediately brought in experts to provide awareness programs for students and staff with more in-depth training for specific key staff (i.e. counselors, social workers, nurses, etc.).
The district also provided additional support staff to work with students at schools where the need was greatest, and in order to offer continued help for students in distress, the district hired a professional to provide support for students and families over the summer months.
“The district is committed to ending all bullying and harassment and making our schools safe for every single student. We will continue to be vigilant and intervene with students who may be at risk of suicide,” Perrault said.
District 11 school board members hope the Feb. 13 adoption of the RLE-CP serves as yet another stepping stone toward a bully-free school community.
The new policy reads as follows:
“Respectful Learning Environment – Curriculum Policy
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 selfworth 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 firstname.lastname@example.org