Archived Story

Anoka-Hennepin drops the ball

Published 1:28pm Saturday, August 6, 2011

Column: Pass the Hot Dish, by Alexandra Kloster

I don’t believe that it takes a village to raise a child. Collective parenting presents too many, often conflicting, influences on a child and undermines the direct line of authority parents have over their children and to whom and what they are exposed.

I do believe it takes a village to protect a child. It is the collective responsibility of family, friends, clergy and educators to act without prejudice or delay when they observe a child in crisis.

Alexandra Kloster

In the last two years seven students have committed suicide in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District. Some students were gay while others were perceived to be gay. What are they going to do about that?

They don’t appear to be doing much. In 2009 Anoka-Hennepin became the only school district in Minnesota to institute a neutrality policy preventing teachers from taking a position on homosexuality in the classroom.

CNN recently featured Jefferson Fietek in a story about the district. Mr. Fietek, a teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts, answers the texts and Facebook messages of suicidal teens after school hours. Doing this puts his job and place in the community in jeopardy, but he does it to counteract a policy of denial that promotes zero tolerance for compassion.

Mr. Fietek’s commitment to help young people in despair is admirable, but he is only one man. How long can he bear the burdens of hundreds of teens without the support of the school district and the community?

Seven suicides in two years is a state of emergency. This is not the time to hide behind so-called neutrality. This is an opportunity to lead. While the community and school board argue policy, the administrators in Anoka-Hennepin have the chance to set an example for districts across the state. If their teachers cannot discuss homosexuality without fear of dismissal, then let them discuss suicide, especially as it relates to bullying and using intimate details of a student’s personal life to attack, wound or even kill.

Most teachers know the difference between leading a discussion and promoting personal opinions. To think that inviting a frank exchange about relevant and urgent topics into the classroom is the same as endorsing a top-secret gay agenda (whatever that is) exposes an overly simplistic leap into faulty judgment. Children, especially teenagers, crave openness and candor.

If a teacher were allowed to stand in front of a classroom and ask, “Do you want to die? Do you want to contribute to the death of someone else?” it would establish a platform for honest conversation about why these suicides are happening. It could be the first step in creating a school environment where everyone feels valuable and safe, where the message is that nothing is worth taking your own life.

There are always going to be people who say devoting any school time to fostering emotional intelligence and developing empathy will take precious hours away from core curriculum instruction. Has anyone ever said we should stop teaching math or science? Of course not, but we cannot deny the fact that when kids go to school they are entering a microsociety where each of them contributes to the social environment.

Within that social environment students must be able to learn and live together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Teachers must be able to intervene and guide when necessary or risk total breakdown.

We already see far too many “Lord of the Flies” scenarios happening in schools all over the country where the vulnerable are dominated by the strong often resulting in tragedy.

Anoka-Hennepin’s neutrality policy is in effect a gag order. Its silence screams shame to students whose burgeoning identities do not fall in line with those of most of their classmates. It promotes the idea that protecting the school is more important than protecting the students. After seven deaths in two years it has still failed to recognize that a cry for help is a call to action.

“Careful the things you say; children will listen,” goes the song from “Into the Woods.” It’s true children are listening even when we think they aren’t. What I fear is that it is when we should speak but choose to be silent that they hear us most clearly.

Woodbury resident Alexandra Kloster appears each Sunday. She may be reached at alikloster@yahoo.com, and her blog is Radishes at Dawn at alexandrakloster.com.

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