Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest district in Minnesota, has come under fire over the past year as an unsafe school for LGBT students and faces a lawsuit from several students who say it has not appropriately responded to bullying. At the heart of the conflict is the school’s “neutrality policy,” which prevents teachers and staff from providing any education about the nature of sexual orientation. Now, the school board is considering a new policy that does not explicitly address sexual orientation, but implies that it is a “controversial topic“:
The study of controversial topics shall contribute toward helping students develop techniques for examining controversy, be appropriate to maturity and developmental level of students, be of significance related to course content, and presented in an atmosphere free of bias and prejudice.
Teachers and educational support staff shall not advocate personal beliefs or opinions regarding controversial topics in the course of their professional duties.
This new language — if enforced — provides just as much confusion as its predecessor. Tammy Aaberg, whose son Justin committed suicide last year after enduring bullying in the district, points out that there is no clear way to determine what is “controversial” and that it’s demeaning to suggest that a student struggling with coming out is in any way “controversial.”
Also at question is what might be construed as a “belief” or “opinion.” Conservatives regularly oppose LGBT equality and safety by simply disagreeing with facts. Would a teacher be accused of “advocating personal beliefs” for telling a lesbian student that her sexual orientation is healthy and normal? Would it be an “opinion regarding controversial topics” to point out that ex-gay therapy is fraudulent and harmful? Would it constitute “bias and prejudice” to interrupt bullying that treats a person’s sexual orientation as wrong or immoral? Under the guise of “controversy,” this new policy might still prevent teachers and staff from providing the proper facts about sexual orientation to ensure students’ safety and health.
There are many long-term health consequences to bullying, and even just the influence of a conservative anti-gay community can contribute to suicide risk. Conversely, research also shows there are benefits to being able to safely come out and find affirmation in the school environment. If Anoka-Hennepin truly wants to ensure student safety, the district should stop catering to anti-gay conservatives and actually teach students what they deserve to know about their identities.