BECKER, Minn. — A central Minnesota school district is clashing with the state school union and LGBTQ allies over a proposed policy that would ban "divisive" concepts from the school district.
The proposed policy, sponsored by three Becker school board members, states that its purpose is to ensure all students and staff are treated in a "respectful, unbiased, fair and equitable manner."
But the policy goes on to dictate that, if passed, "neither political indoctrination or the teaching of inherently divisive concepts will be allowed" and that classrooms must be free of any personal bias.
The policy is seen by some as a response to recent debates in the district over pride flags in classrooms and calls for equity in regards to LGBTQ students. But its authors have been hush about the process. During the school board's first reading of the policy in July, no members discussed it.
Two members of the school policy committee, Pete Weismann and Connie Robinson, did not respond to requests for comment. Ryan Obermoller, who is listed as a member of the committee but said he hasn't attended any meetings, declined to comment on the policy's purpose.
"That's all behind the scenes, and I'm not going to comment on it," Obermoller said.
Many in the school, community and state interpret the policy as the district trying to stifle free speech, suppress LGBTQ students and advocates and prohibit the accurate teaching of history and other subjects. And a few groups are threatening to sue the district if the policy is implemented.
"It is, frankly, hard to know where to begin in unpacking the problems with this general policy statement," said Meg Luger-Nikolai, attorney with the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota, who noted the prohibition of personal bias could make the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance — which requires showing prejudice in favor of the U.S. and its flag — an opportunity for discipline for staff and students.
The issue roiling Becker school officials is the latest instance of polarizing national issues such as critical race theory, COVID precautions and LGBTQ advocacy taking center stage in local school politics, increasingly causing tense and sometimes unruly public outpourings at board meetings across the country.
Education Minnesota also chastised the board for a new district communications plan passed in May that states teachers can't speak to anyone outside the district about school happenings unless it is preapproved and conforms to the district's communication goals.
Chris Williams, press secretary for Education Minnesota, said that if the policies are not revised the union could sue the district, which would be the first time in Minnesota the union would consider legal action against a school district for a "gag order on teachers."
The Becker school board on Monday voted to table the discussion on the proposed policy, dubbed 471, but it did not discuss the communication plan. The policy committeeplans to meet again after the policy is reviewed by legal counsel, likely before the next board meeting Sept. 12.
Becker Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt said after the meeting he recommended the policy be vetted by legal counsel to ensure it doesn't violate personal rights. Many board policies use language drafted by the Minnesota School Boards Association, but the MSBA does not have a similar policy banning "divisive" topics.
The district also garnered criticism from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a state LGBTQ advocacy group and the district's own teachers union.
"It seems unconstitutional. It seems unpatriotic and runs counter to our district's vision of 'preparing self-directed learners to thrive in a changing global community,'" said Ben Pany, co-president of the Becker Education Association. "We will take legal action if needed because we must stand up for providing a safe space for all."
The ACLU of Minnesota sent the district a letter stating the policy as written significantly interferes with the First Amendment rights of students and undermines equity and inclusion. And OutFront Minnesota — an organization supporting LGBTQ rights — sent a letter stating the organization is troubled by a concerning pattern of behavior by the district regarding LGBTQ students, staff and community members.
In March, more than 100 protesters attended a controversial Becker school board meeting where members of the Child Protection League talked about what they called the "worrisome" increase of transgender youth and other LGBTQ issues.
The Child Protection League describes itself as an organization to protecting children from exploitation and indoctrination. One of the group's founders, Barb Anderson, was also part of the Parents Action League — a similar anti-LGBTQ group actively involved with the Anoka-Hennepin School District when it saw a rash of suicides and a lawsuit claiming the district didn't respond to harassment on the basis of sexual orientation.
After the March meeting, two school board members resigned. Former board member Cindy Graham said she resigned after a lack of respect from students who repeatedly interrupted the presentation with chants of, "Gay rights are human rights."
A couple dozen students attended the board meeting Monday.
"High school is supposed to prepare students for the real world," senior Ella Rick said. "Becker claims to be doing this, but [this] policy prepares students for a censored and noninclusive world."
One of the 11 speakers Monday was a community member who spoke in favor of the proposed policy.
"I think [the] policy … seeks to ensure that fundamental values of our nation are taught to students and seeks to prevent efforts to denigrate or mischaracterize those fundamental values," said Russ Armstrong, a Becker resident. He said the target wasn't so much personal pronouns and LGBTQ as much as it was critical race theory. "CRT teaches a different America than what we've all experienced."
Critical race theory is a concept exploring systemic racism. But in many conservative media and activist circles, it has become a blanket term for equity efforts in institutions including schools.
Advisers for the school's Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club said Monday they are worried they will be targeted by the policy. Art teacher Jo Eichler said she helped form the GSA club more than a decade ago after LGBTQ students came to her looking for a safe place. The bullying and discrimination felt by students has also been felt by staff, Eichler said.
"As an ally, I've had LGBTQ staff members come to me about their experiences in this district," she said. "It has been heartbreaking to listen to the lack of support and the discrimination they have faced. We have lost truly remarkable teachers and coaches who have left this district because it isn't safe for them to be themselves here."
Heather Abrahamson, GSA adviser and history teacher, said the policy would interfere with state-approved education standards — such as lessons on political parties and the adoption of the Constitution — in addition to unfairly targeting LGBTQ students.
"How am I going to teach?" Abrahamson asked. "How am I going to support the GSA kids? How am I going to stand up for what I believe in and stand up for human rights with this hanging over my head?"