Minnesota school district changes "neutral" policy on sexual orientation

COON RAPIDS, Minn. — The Anoka-Hennepin school board, which oversees the state’s largest school district, has adopted a new policy that replaces a policy that required teachers to stay neutral in matters relating to sexual orientation — a policy critics called a “gag rule” that constrained teachers from dealing with harassment and bullying of LGBT students.

In a voice vote on Monday evening, the school board voted 5-1 to adopt the “Respectful Learning Environment” policy, a replacement to the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy.

The previous policy stated that “Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions.”

“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,” the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said, in a statement.

“Although we would have preferred for the District to have repealed this stigmatizing policy without replacing it, we are pleased that the new policy expressly requires district staff to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all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.”

Last summer, the SPLC and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of five students in the district for alleged disregard of bullying in schools under the neutrality policy.

The Justice Department has also opened an investigation of the school district in conjunction with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

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.

The new policy takes effect immediately for more than 38,500 students and 2,800 teachers.

Monday’s actions by the board occurred less than two weeks after Rolling Stone magazine published an article reporting on a “cluster” of nine teen suicides in the district with at least four of the nine either gay or perceived to be gay.

Anoka-Hennepin officials condemned the article, calling it a “grossly distorted portrayal” of the school system and the old policy.

The new Anoka-Hennepin policy obligates the school system to providing “a safe and respectful learning environment for all students,” and directs staff to “affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.’

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