Events of the last month have demonstrated the drastic difference that leadership on a local school board can make for the safety of students and civility in discourse.
The St. Paul Board of Education and the Anoka-Hennepin School District are both considering policies that would provide more inclusion for LGBT students. Even though less than 30 miles separate the two districts, their efforts on creating safer schools could not be further apart.
The St. Paul proposal, called the Gender Inclusion Policy, would change school policy to be more inclusive of transgender and gender nonconforming students. It would respect all students’ right to be referred to by their preferred pronoun, prohibit unnecessary separation of students by gender, allow students to participate in activities consistent with their gender identity, and ensure access to facilities consistent with gender identity.
The Anoka-Hennepin proposal would encourage inclusion of LGBT students by “honoring and celebrating the contributions of diverse people…including the LGBT community. Recognize, affirm and assess specific LGBT activities….Continue to support student-led Gay Straight Alliance clubs…Host school-related family nights for our diverse populations … Create public displays honoring LGBT history month each October.” That proposal is Recommendation #3 from the school’s anti-bullying task force.
These are two very positive efforts to change school climate for the better for LGBT students. One school district is handling the issue well; the other is not.
At a late February meeting of the St. Paul Board of Education, the board held the second hearing on the policy proposal. The support from students, staff and parents that testified was thus far was unanimously in support of the policy. But a conservative activist named Tim Kinley approached the microphone and launched a sarcastic tirade against transgender students, and mentioned his support for therapy that purports to change people from gay to straight.
“My child at the age of 2 came out and self identified as a horse and during that time she also self identified as a dog, a cat an elephant and a lot of different animals but she eventually settled on the idea that she was a horse… once she became older, she decided that her name should be Mr. Ed… So I would appreciate that the school accommodates her name Mr. Ed and also provide bathrooms for all the other animals so that they can feel comfortable.”
Board members were shocked. One interrupted Tinley’s testimony, calling it inappropriate, and left the room visibly upset. A few minutes later, Board Chair Mary Doran said, “To the transgender students here tonight, I personally apologize for you having to sit through that. That kind of speech is not something this board or the superintendent condones.”
Exactly a week later, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board held a hearing on Recommendation #3. District grandmother and longtime demonizer of the LGBT people, Barb Anderson, addressed the board. She said that “homosexuals” engage in behaviors that are “exceptionally dangerous” and claimed that Gay-Straight Alliances in the school are used to recruit heterosexuals into the “homosexual lifestyle.”
“GSAs will draw more confused and questioning youth into gay experimentation. A homosexual club is not a position of neutrality but is a danger to the health and the future of kids in District 11.”
Not a single board member flinched. No apology was made to the LGBT students in the audience. As she left the table, Anderson was thanked for her testimony even though much of it was inflammatory and demonstrably false.
Those two scenes exemplify the differences in approach by the respective school boards. One is making intentional efforts to ensure all students feel safe, while the other has fought efforts to bring inclusion into district schools.
Anoka-Hennepin faced a rash of suicides of LGBT students several years ago. Six LGBT students sued the district alleging widespread bullying, harassment, and violence. For years the district had a policy that said, “homosexuality [will] not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle and that the district staff and their resources not advocate the homosexual lifestyle.” When that was scrapped in the late 2000s, the district adopted a “neutrality policy” that had roughly the same effect. It took a federal lawsuit to get the district to change that policy, though sources inside the district note that it is still in effect from an administrative standpoint, and staff are instructed to not say anything that reflects approval of being LGBT.
Recommendation #3 has consistently been shuffled off the school board’s agenda. Last fall, it was sent back to an administrative panel for further review. In February, the board declined to vote on the recommendation saying instead that the district is already implementing all of its elements. That’s news to the throngs of conservative Christian parents that flock to school board meetings each month to advocate against the policy. It’s equally a surprise to supporters of LGBT students who are adamant that it be passed by the board. If the elements of the policy are already being implemented in Anoka-Hennepin, school board members are the only people in the state’s largest district that seem aware of it.
The St. Paul Board of Education, on the other hand, has been proactive in identifying inequities facing students in the district. The planned Gender Inclusion Policy has broad support on the board, the development of the policy involved board members, and the work-group that developed the policy was formed at the direction of the board. When it passes in mid-March, will become the first such policy in Minnesota and one of the first in the nation.
If the Anoka-Hennepin School Board is going to resist positive changes to the school environment for LGBT students, they could — at the very least — work to change the tone of the conversation. Zealots like Barb Anderson should still be afforded the right to address the board, but the board is also within its right to note that her testimony — and testimony from her peers — doesn’t reflect the sentiment of the board. Or they could follow St. Paul’s example and simply apologize to the LGBT students that had to sit and hear an adult calling them dangerous, unhealthy recruiters into the “homosexual lifestyle.”
It’s the least they could do, because it doesn’t appear they are willing to do much else.