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School district to reconsider allowing teachers to discuss homosexuality in the classroom

By Tricia Escobedo, CNN
updated 12:47 PM EST, Mon December 12, 2011
Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota is reconsidering barring teachers from discussing homosexuality.
Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota is reconsidering barring teachers from discussing homosexuality.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Minnesota school board to propose changes to controversial "neutrality policy"
  • Under the policy, teachers are barred from discussing homosexuality in the classroom
  • The proposed changes would allow for controversial topics to be examined in the classroom
  • The previous policy triggered a federal lawsuit by a group of students

(CNN) -- The school board representing Minnesota's largest school district on Monday night will consider scrapping a controversial policy requiring teachers not to discuss homosexuality in school.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District's sexual orientation curriculum policy, adopted in 2009, bars teachers from taking a position on homosexuality in the classroom and says such matters are best addressed outside of school. It's become known as the neutrality policy.

During Monday night's hearing, the school board will propose replacing that policy with a "controversial topics curriculum policy" that, according to the proposed wording, "recognizes the importance of providing information about controversial topics in a democracy."

However, it states that teachers and staff "shall not advocate personal beliefs or opinions" regarding those controversial topics -- which are not named -- in the classroom.

It's one of many changes being considered to the district's harassment, violence, and discrimination policy and its religious activities policy. The so-called "neutrality policy" triggered a federal lawsuit by students who allege the policy creates a toxic environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender students -- or students perceived to be LGBT.

The school district has refrained from commenting on specifics in the lawsuit. Superintendent Dennis Carlson has said in the past that the neutrality policy -- which has attracted just as many local supporters as it has critics to heated school board meetings -- is a reasonable response to a divided community.

"It's a diverse community," Carlson told CNN earlier this year, "and what we're trying to do, what I'm trying to do as a superintendent, is walk down the middle of the road."

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The Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the lawsuit in July on behalf of the students, praised the school district for reconsidering the neutrality policy.

"The students and families ... feel that policy improvements are one important step forward in making the school district a more welcoming environment for all students," the SPLC said in a statement issued last week.

Anoka-Hennepin encompasses the Twin Cities' northwestern suburbs and is the state's largest school district.

The school district made headlines in recent years after seven students committed suicide between November 2009 and May 2011. Parents and friends say four of those students were either gay, perceived to be gay or questioning their sexuality. They say, at least two of them were bullied because of their sexuality.

The school district says there is no evidence that the suicides were linked to bullying, noting that it has a separate, and comprehensive, bullying prohibition policy.

"We have no evidence that bullying or harassment took place in any of those cases," Superintendent Carlson said.

Carlson emphasized students need to report bullying, and he acknowledged "gay students in our district struggle with bullying and harassment on a daily basis."

Nevertheless, the string of suicides stirred public debate over the school's sexual orientation curriculum policy.

The school district is also in the middle of a federal investigation into "allegations of harassment and discrimination in the Anoka-Hennepin School District based on sex, including peer-on-peer harassment based on not conforming to gender stereotypes," according to a district memo.

The school board could vote on the proposed changes to the neutrality policy as soon as the next school board meeting in early January, said Julie Blaha, president of the local teachers' union.

Blaha, whose union represents about 2,800 teachers in the school district, plans to meet with the teachers to formulate a "position statement" on the proposed changes. She said she wants to make sure the policy clearly defines "controversial topics" and what it means for teachers and staff to "advocate personal beliefs or opinions," which the proposed policy prohibits.

Overall, Blaha says she welcomes changes to the existing neutrality policy, which she described as vague and difficult for teachers to interpret.

"Neutrality has not given us good guidance in the classroom," Blaha explained. "You can interpret that so many ways (so) it had a chilling effect on any discussion.

"And these times when ... our gay students are under more likely to be a target of bullying, that's not the time to chill a discussion about sexual orientation," she said.

CNN's Emily Probst contributed to this report.

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