COON RAPIDS, Minn. (AP) — The school board in Minnesota's largest school district on Monday night approved a replacement for a policy that required teachers to stay neutral when sexual orientation comes up in class, a stance that some critics blamed for fostering bullying.
The Anoka-Hennepin School Board adopted the "Respectful Learning Environment" policy on a voice vote. Only board member Kathy Tingelstad voted no.
After hearing more than an hour of testimony from more than 20 people, board member Scott Wenzel said he believed the change will help the district and the community move forward.
Tingelstad told reporters afterward she didn't appreciate all the outside pressure that has come down on the board over the issue in recent months.
The new policy commits the north suburban Twin Cities district to providing "a safe and respectful learning environment for all students." It says that when contentious political, religious, social matters or economic issues come up — it does not specifically cite sexuality issues — teachers shouldn't try to persuade students to adopt particular viewpoint. It calls for teachers to foster respectful exchanges of views. It also says in such discussions, staff should affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
The proposal was unveiled at a Jan. 23 school board meeting after an earlier revision attempt left all sides unsatisfied. The new policy takes effect immediately.
The district's teachers union endorsed the policy change.
The district is the target of two lawsuits over the old policy, and the change may move them closer to settlement.
Critics said the old neutrality policy kept teachers from preventing bullying of students who are gay or perceived as gay. It had the support of some parents who believe homosexual conduct is immoral and told the board they don't want their children taught otherwise.
The old policy had been under fire since six students in the district committed suicide in less than two years. 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 district has about 38,500 students and 2,800 teachers.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau has scheduled the next round of settlement talks for March 1 and 2 in two lawsuits filed by students, former students and parents against the neutrality policy. Both sides have been keeping those discussions confidential, but the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which are representing the plaintiffs, issued a statement applauding the policy change.
"Today is the first day in nearly 18 years that Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District no longer has a harmful policy that singles out lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. Although we would have preferred for the District to have repealed this stigmatizing policy without replacing it, we are pleased that the new policy expressly requires district staff to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, including LGBT students," the statement said. "The repeal of this policy is an important first step, but the District must do much more to create a safe, welcoming, and respectful learning environment for all students, including LGBT and gender non-conforming students, and those perceived as such."