Anoka-Hennepin teacher training test requires affirmation of "neutrality policy"

Teachers who have a problem with the Anoka-Hennepin school district's so-called "no homo promo" policy are in yet another tight spot.

The policy says that staff "shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation" in the schools. Some district teachers have been complaining for years that at best the policy is confusing and at worst it prevents them from helping gay teens in crisis.

Now, all teachers and staff are being required to take a test that essentially affirms that they believe the policy protects students. Some are refusing to do so.

In the last two years, nine teens who attended Anoka-Hennepin schools committed suicide, and at least two were tied to anti-gay bullying. That's cast a very unflattering light on the district's Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy or "neutrality" policy, which is the only of its kind in the state. The key part reads:

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.

This past summer, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal suit against the district on behalf of five bullied students, saying that the neutrality policy fostered a discriminatory school atmosphere that encouraged name-calling and anti-gay violence. The Department of Justice has launched its own investigation on the charges.

A screengrab from the online test [CLICK TO ENLARGE].
A screengrab from the online test [CLICK TO ENLARGE].

Throughout the turmoil, district administrators have stuck by the policy and instituted new teacher training in order to "clarify" it. As a part of that training, teachers and staff recently watched a Power Point video called "District Message on Anti-Bullying, Anti-Harassment and Policy Related FAQs." It explained both the neutrality policy and the district bullying policy, and how to administer each. Teachers were then told to pass a quiz on the material with 100 percent accuracy.

The trouble started on question number three: "One of the goals of the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy is to ensure all of our students feel safe and respected in our classrooms and/or while participating in school activities: true or false?"

That did not sit right with Colleen Cashen, the school psychologist for Northdale Middle School.

"I didn't feel in my heart that I could say that that statement was true," she says. "I think the policy creates a hostile environment for some students."

She answered the question "false," which results in a failure to "master." Although teachers are allowed to retake the online quiz as many times as they like, several like Cashen are refusing to change their answer. Those who've done so are being warned they must complete the test by September 30.

Anoka Middle School drama teacher Jefferson Fietek says he is uneasy about how the quiz results will be used afterward.

"My fear is that I'm going to be opening up my weekly newspaper and seeing, '100 percent of district teachers say the policy is helpful,'" he says. "It's really poor timing and a poor choice and is putting teachers in a really rough spot."

Jonathon Plotz, an english teacher at Anoka High School also found fault with a second question which asked, "In which of the following situations should a teacher remain 'neutral'?" Answers B through D are all examples of overt bullying, answer A says, "Students in a Language Arts class are discussing how an author's sexual orientation may have influenced the literary work." Knowing "A" was the correct answer, Plotz also intentionally answered this question incorrectly.

"It's not because we have any question about whether or not we should intervene with bullying," he says. "It's, 'Can I say anything at all about this topic?'"

In an email, a spokesperson for the district wrote that there will be no punishment for failing the test, but that a meeting to discuss the issue has been set up with the teacher's union for next week.

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