Why “Neutrality” on Controversial Issues in the Classroom Doesn’t Work

What Women Really Think
Feb. 15 2012 2:39 PM

Why “Neutrality” on Controversial Issues in the Classroom Doesn’t Work

Under threat of two lawsuits and intense public scrutiny, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board—which governs Minnesota’s largest district and the area from which anti-LGBT politician Michele Bachmann hails—decided on Monday to revise its prior policy of teacher “neutrality” on controversial social issues (namely, sexual orientation) to a slightly more open ethos. The Associated Press explains:

"The new policy says when contentious political, religious, social matters or economic issues come up — it does not specifically cite sexuality issues — teachers shouldn't try to persuade students to adopt a particular viewpoint. It calls for teachers to foster respectful exchanges of views. It also says in such discussions, staff should affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation."


While the new position stops short of encouraging teachers to actually fight homophobia directly, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, especially in a district that has learned through tragedy the grave costs of so-called “neutral” silence. Over the course of less than two years, six students have committed suicide in cases where anti-LGBT bullying (whether the victim identified as gay or not) was almost certainly a factor. Earlier this month, Rolling Stone published a heart-wrenching account by Sabrina Erdely of the suicide epidemic, in which the writer shows how the area’s considerable evangelical presence resists even acknowledging the existence of gay students, much less the establishment of support programs like gay-straight alliances. Caught in the cross-fire between homophobes and grieving parents, the school board chose neutrality.

But of course, saying nothing conveys a message of its own—one that is, unfortunately, open to a wide array of interpretations. To the besieged gay or perceived-to-be-gay student, the teacher’s uncomfortable silence signals at best cowardice and, at worst, complicity with the bully. Meanwhile, the aggressor receives no punishment, so why stop? Silent condemnation teeters perilously close to tacit approval. As Erdely shows in her piece, teachers subject to the yoke of neutrality can’t do any good and actually end up fomenting a kind of self-reinforcing feedback loop that, at least in this case, proved disastrous.*

Perhaps the basic ability to discuss homosexuality and other controversial issues will help defuse some of the tension in Minnesota; but let’s be clear, this is not a fair debate between equally matched adults. LGBT youth—especially in such a conservative environment—cannot be expected to go toe to toe against homophobes with nothing more than a supposedly “balanced” framework in place. Teachers should not be activists, but they must be advocates, because one side desperately needs the support—if only to make it out of high school alive.

*Clarification, Feb. 16, 2012:This post previously used the term "negative feedback loop," which, as a reader rightly pointed out, has a specific technical meaning different from what the writer intended.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.