Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district, which encompasses two counties and over 39,000 students, has replaced its controversial Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy—commonly referred to as a “neutrality policy” on issues pertaining to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals—with a more inclusive policy. The policy, which was instituted in 2009, stated that “[t]eaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations.” It also ordered 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.”
The neutrality policy” has received wide condemnation, including that of public health leaders in the state, and has been blamed for the suicides of several LGBT students over the past two years. Teachers also derided the policy as vague and have been hesitant, for example, to assign books written by LGBT authors or containing LGBT characters, discuss current events such as the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning gay and lesbian individuals from serving openly in the military, counsel LGBT students, or intervene when students who identified as LGBT or were perceived as such were bullied or harassed, for fear of being terminated.
The new Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy, which the school board approved with a 5–1 vote on February 13, 2012, identifies “[p]olitical, religious, social, or economic issues” as possible contentious subjects that may arise in class. It states that it “is not the District’s role to take positions on these issues” and instructs that “staff shall not attempt in the course of their professional duties to persuade students to adopt or reject any particular viewpoint with respect to these issues.” Staff members also must “affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of their race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex/gender, marital status, disability, status with regard to public assistance, sexual orientation, age, family care leave status or veteran status.”
The adoption of the Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy marks the first time in almost two decades that district employees will be able to address LGBT issues without fear of losing their jobs. In 1994, an anti-LGBT former Anoka-Hennepin teacher—whose children attended a private school—and four parents who shared her views joined a committee convened to review the district’s sex education policy. After a seven-month review, the committee produced a memo to the school board expressing their view that parents objected to their children being taught about “homosexuality” in school. The school board subsequently adopted a policy stating that “homosexuality [must] not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.”
Fifteen years later, in 2009, that policy came under public scrutiny after a former student alleged that his teachers had harassed him with anti-gay epithets. In an effort to appease both anti-LGBT religious conservatives and people concerned about the negative effect that the policy could have on LGBT students, the school board adopted the “neutrality policy” on February 9, 2009. During the two years that the “neutrality policy” was in effect, nine Anoka-Hennepin students committed suicide, prompting state public health authorities to designate the district as a “suicide contagion area.” Hundreds more students were evaluated and sometimes hospitalized for depression, suicidal ideation, and attempted suicide. At least four of the students who committed suicide were relentlessly verbally harassed and physically assaulted because they were or were perceived to be LGBT.
Several current and former LGBT students reported their plight to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)—including one who dropped out of school and attempted suicide after two years of daily bullying went unaddressed, one who was advised by administrators to leave school because they claimed they could not protect him, and one who was violently assaulted and taunted with a homophobic epithet in front of a teacher, who did nothing to stop the attack. The SPLC, together with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a local law firm, sued the school district on behalf of the students in July 2011, blaming the “neutrality policy” for creating a hostile learning environment. In addition, the Department of Justice and Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education are investigating “allegations of harassment and discrimination in the Anoka-Hennepin School District based on sex, including peer-on-peer harassment based on not conforming to gender stereotypes.”
As a result of the suicides and subsequent backlash, the school board recommended replacing the “neutrality policy” with the new Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy, barring teachers from expressing personal opinions on unspecified controversial issues, on December 12, 2011. Groups on both sides of the debate sharply criticized the proposed policy. The teachers’ union, which supported rescinding the “neutrality policy” but felt that replacing it with a new policy was unnecessary, objected to the lack of a definition of what topics were deemed “controversial” and expressed concern that they would be unable to support LGBT students. The anti-LGBT Parents Action League claimed that removing the “neutrality policy” would “open the door to pro-homosexual and related conduct materials in the school curriculum.” Following the backlash, the school board finally proposed and passed the Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy.
Anoka-Hennepin School District No. 11, “Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy,” released 9 February 2009, accessed 20 February 2012,
Sabrina Rudin Erdley, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens,” Rolling Stone, 2 February 2012, accessed 5 February 2012,
Anoka-Hennepin School District No. 11, “Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy,” released 13 February 2012, accessed 20 February 2012,
Erdley, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens.”
Andy Birkey, “Anoka-Hennepin Schools’ Long History in the Culture War,” Minnesota Independent,26 August 2011, accessed 20 February 2012,
Stephanie Mencimer, “The Teen Suicide Epidemic in Michele Bachmann’s District,” Mother Jones, 25 July 2011, accessed 25 February 2012,
Erdley, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens.”.
Letter from the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights to Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson, 24 May 2011, accessed 24 February 2011,
Southern Poverty Law Center, “Doe, et al. v. Anoka-Hennepin School District No. 11, et al.,” 21 July 2011, accessed 24 February 2012,
“Department of Justice Investigation of Complaint,” Memorandum from Anoka-Hennepin School District General Counsel Paul H. Cady, 25 April 2011, accessed 25 February 2012,
“Resolution Presented to the Anoka-Hennepin District 11 School Board by Bryan Lindquist and Michael Skaalerud,” Parents Action League, 9 January 2012, accessed 20 February 2012, <http://www.parentsactionleague.org/concerns-demands/>.