Anoka-Hennepin sexual orientation policy has roots in 1995 school board actionby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Late one night in the summer of 1995, Anoka-Hennepin School Board members Mark Temke and Ron Manning moved to accept the final piece of a health proposal written by a group of socially conservative parents and community members: Homosexuality should not be "taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle" in the schools.
Read a timeline showing the Anoka-Hennepin School District's experience with sexual orientation issues.
The motion passed on a 4-2 vote, as had other items in the health curriculum "minority report," which included an emphasis on monogamous, heterosexual marriage and a statement that sodomy is illegal in Minnesota and creates a high risk for contracting AIDS.
Although the board forwarded the "minority report" and a "majority report" to district administrators, the language in the minority report never became part of formal district policy.
But the sentiment was taken quite seriously. The board's acceptance of the curriculum recommendations filtered into the schools, said teachers in the district, where for many years it was widely understood that sexual orientation issues weren't to be discussed.
"People really misunderstood what happened there," said Manning, who still lives in the school district, the state's largest, but no longer serves on the board. "A lot of people assumed that because we turned in a minority report that we were suggesting that they accept that. We really weren't." He said the board wanted to include everybody's point of view and formally record what the small group thought should be taught.
The remnants of that late night school board meeting are still being felt today, 16 years later, as school district officials defend a revised sexual orientation curriculum policy against a possible lawsuit by two national civil rights organizations. The two sides met last week and agreed to keep talking.
The revised policy, adopted in February 2009, says that matters of sexual orientation are better handled by families and churches. It also says teachers should stay neutral if they come up in their classrooms.
That policy followed a 2008 human rights complaint filed by the mother of a high school student who said two teachers harassed her son because they thought he was gay. Gay rights organizations had been pressuring the district to change its policies on sexual orientation.
By that time, the new school board knew that the language their predecessors accepted in the 1995 minority report was no longer consistent with the law — a judge had struck down Minnesota's sodomy statute in 2001.
The board adopted the new so-called "neutrality policy" after lengthy discussions with parents, community members and advocacy groups. Some people didn't want schools to teach kids anything that would clash with their religious belief that homosexuality is wrong; others wanted to prevent school staff from ostracizing gay students and families.
The beliefs held by the first group matched former board member Temke's feelings. But he said in an interview earlier this month that health was the primary argument he and other supporters of the minority report made for discouraging homosexuality in the schools. The group cited data showing higher rates of alcoholism, suicide and STD infection among gays and lesbians, he said.
Advocating homosexuality "would be steering people to their own self-destruction," said Temke, a businessman who still lives in the school district. "I stand by that 110 percent today like I did when I proposed it," he said of the board directive. "It was done for very valid reasons."
Brian Tommerdahl, an Anoka-Hennepin parent who was on the health curriculum committee in 1995 and supported the minority report, said the school board and many community members acknowledged that the '95 language put the district in a vulnerable position legally. He praised the 2009 policy, saying it addressed that problem while also aiming to keep teachers from becoming advocates.
"What is the primary purpose of the school? To teach math, reading, the sciences — not a particular political agenda," he said. "This is a neutral policy."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the two groups threatening to sue the district, disagrees. The groups' attorneys argue it contributes to a hostile atmosphere by preventing teachers from fully addressing bullying against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
Despite a possible lawsuit, school board members and Superintendent Dennis Carlson have defended the policy, saying it aims to serve a community divided on sexual orientation issues. Officials say the district has separate policies addressing bullying and harassment.
Tommerdahl said he thinks the policy would withstand a court test, but he's concerned the school board will fear the costs of a lawsuit and reverse course. It's happened to others on issues of sexual orientation, he said. "These districts, these communities, these businesses don't have an abundance of money. Lawsuits are expensive," he said.
Like many school districts in the state, Anoka-Hennepin has struggled with budget cuts in recent years. But changing policy could also catch the attention of voters — the same people who will decide this fall whether to renew a $48 million tax levy for the Anoka-Hennepin district.
"Levies can politicize so much you do in schools," said Julie Blaha, Anoka-Hennepin teachers' union president. "Losing a levy ... would be devastating. It's a very real fear."
While meeting privately with civil rights groups, school district officials are also paying close attention to public opinion on their performance in anticipation of the levy vote. Just last month, board members reviewed results of a district-wide public opinion survey about everything from school quality to feelings about taxes.
Phil Duran, legal director for Minnesota gay rights group OutFront Minnesota, said that while the 2009 policy was definitely an improvement for the district, it's time for it to go.
His group had argued against the one sentence in the two-paragraph policy dealing with neutrality, which Duran said can lead to silence and exclusion and make kids more susceptible to bullying. "The board has made a political choice," he said. "They've painted themselves into a corner and are unwilling to find any way of getting themselves out, and in their intransigence have fostered a culture of uncertainty that is making the situation worse."
A POLICY IN ISOLATION
Anoka-Hennepin's sexual orientation curriculum policy is the only one of its kind in the state, so the district won't be able to lean on other Minnesota school systems to defend itself.
Nationally, eight states have laws limiting what teachers can say about homosexuality, and Tennessee could become the ninth under a proposal making its way through the Legislature. But individual school districts have power to create their own policies, and there's no easy way to track how many have written policies on sexual orientation.
Lawsuits against such policies have been rare. One policy, which banned any positive mention of homosexuality at a small school district in Merrimack, N.H., was challenged in court in the mid-'90s. The lawsuit was dropped after the school board changed the policy following an election in which a board member who supported it lost her seat.
Groups that scrutinize school sexual orientation policies haven't found one exactly like Anoka-Hennepin's current policy anywhere in the country.
"They've developed this policy through a process unique to Anoka-Hennepin," said Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. "It's a newer policy, it's something that really has an effect, and the community is focused on it."