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Anoka-Hennepin Proposes Changing Neutrality Policy

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Minnesota's largest school district is considering changes to its neutrality policy on sexual orientation, a stance that critics contend has left gay and lesbian students without protection.

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board is scheduled to hear a proposal Monday to delete the policy, which says such matters are best discussed at home. It would be replaced with one saying teachers and staff will not advocate personal beliefs on controversial topics.

Some current and former students are suing the district over its policy requiring staff to remain neutral when sexual orientation is discussed. The plaintiffs claim that prevents teachers from protecting gay students. The neutrality policy came under criticism after six students committed suicide in the district in less than two years.

District spokesman Brett Johnson said Wednesday the proposed change is meant to give teachers more clarification and is not in response to the lawsuit.

Johnson said the proposal is broader than current policy. A policy on keeping neutral on religious matters also would be eliminated and covered by the new policy.

"This is saying, don't bring your personal beliefs into it (controversial topics)," Johnson told The Associated Press. "It's not saying you can't talk about them."

Julie Blaha, president of the Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota chapter that represents about 2,800 teachers in the district, said she welcomed the potential change.

"I'm glad to see we're looking at changes. I think that's a wise choice," said Blaha, who first saw the proposal Wednesday evening.

Blaha said the current policy was causing confusion for teachers.

"If you ask five different teachers what the policy means, you get five different answers," she said.

Tammy Aaberg of Champlin, whose 15-year-old son Justin killed himself last year after enduring anti-gay bullying, said at first glance the proposed change "sounds worse than neutral."

"That wording makes it sound even more demeaning, I guess, being that you're controversial," said Aaberg, who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "Who you are, who you are born to be — why should that be controversial?"

Aaberg has co-founded Justin's Gift, a support group for LGBT students in the suburban district. Jefferson Fietek, a drama teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts and vice president of Justin's Gift, said he's concerned the new policy is too vague.

"And so what exactly is controversial and who decides what is controversial? Something that may be controversial to one person may not be very controversial to another," Fietek said.

Federal investigators began looking into complaints of harassment and bullying in the northern Twin Cities school district in the fall of 2010.

A parent of one of the students who committed suicide says her son was bullied for being gay. Gay advocacy groups say some of the others students who killed themselves were also bullied.

The district has said its internal investigation found no evidence that bullying contributed to the deaths. But the district, which has 38,500 students, changed its anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in October 2010 to clearly state that harassment or bullying of gay students wouldn't be tolerated.

The school board also will hear a proposed change in its harassment policy Monday night, but that only puts the protected classes into the language of the policy, Johnson said. He said the board is expected to vote on the proposed changes in January.

Johnson said mediation aimed at resolving the lawsuit and federal investigation is ongoing.

Statement: Anoka-Hennepin School Board to consider Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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