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St. Louis Park Board seeks state guidance on book challenges after dispute with Somali parents


Friday March 1, 2024
By Becky Z. Dernbach

After dispute with Somali parents, St. Louis Park school board says state should clarify how far book challenges can go

School board says state’s opt-out law is too broad; Somali mom says pushback shows “hostility toward religious parents.”

The St. Louis Park school board is calling for a law change, following a legal dispute over whether families could choose not to read books with LGBTQ+ characters.

In the fall, six Somali Muslim families threatened to sue the St. Louis Park Public Schools when they said the district had denied their requests to remove their children from storytime with picture books featuring LGBTQ+ characters. Under Minnesota law, parents have the right to review instructional materials and, if they object, make “reasonable arrangements” for alternative instruction. In mid-February, the law firms representing the families declared victory when they said the St. Louis Park school district had granted the parents’ requests.

But in Wednesday night’s school board meeting, board members made clear that while they intended to follow the law, they also believed that the law needed to be changed. In their resolution, they called on the Legislature to make clear that representation of protected classes—including race, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation—could not be a basis for seeking alternative instruction.

“The way this law currently reads means that someone can opt out of anything for any reason,” said board member Anne Casey. “If protected classes aren’t excluded, someone could come in and say, I don’t want my child to learn about people of color. I don’t want my child to learn about Jewish people. I don’t want my child to learn about people with disabilities. Those are literally all legal under the current iteration of this law, and that does not sit well with me.”

The resolution also provides specific guidance to St. Louis Park teachers on what materials parents may review and the process for reviewing these materials—and makes clear that teachers should not review materials on a parent’s behalf to screen for possible objections. The resolution specifies that classroom discussions, teacher lesson plans, classroom decor, and library material not being used for instruction do not constitute materials subject to parental review. It also specifies that any parental objections must pertain to specific materials: “Blanket objections to content and representation of protected classes that are not specific to reviewed and identified instructional material(s) will not be accepted.”

Board member Virginia Mancini, who introduced the resolution, explained that as a reading teacher, she has learned that forming trusting relationships with students is critical—which means creating classroom environments that reflect their lives.

“Kids will not read unless they see themselves, unless they can relate to it,” she said. “What we’re saying in public education is that everyone matters, and everyone is equal. I am not interested in telling people that they’re not welcome. I’m only interested in making warm, inclusive environments for children.”

Several board members said they had had conversations with staff who needed more guidance on how to implement the district’s parental curriculum review policy. That confusion became evident the day that the parents declared victory. Kayla Toney, an attorney with the First Liberty Institute, a conservative Texas-based law firm focused on religious freedom that represented the parents, said that one of her clients had received notice that they would be notified in advance of any materials relating to the LGBTQ+ community. The school district clarified that this was an agreement reached for one student, but that in general the district would not be reviewing materials or providing advance notice of what parents might find objectionable.

Board chair C. Colin Cox said he had met with the interim superintendent and principals, who described “the fear coming from our teachers, and how we put them in a really awkward space here” as they had to figure out their role in handling these requests. Cox said he was proud of the board’s work to spell out clearly the expectations of the parental curriculum review policy, which he hoped would provide more support for teachers.

Every board member present spoke in favor of the resolution which passed by a vote of 6-0. Board vice chair Abdihakim Ibrahim was absent. On Friday, he issued a statement in the district’s newsletter.

“As a parent and a school board member, I fully support our district’s commitment to equity and inclusion,” he said. He reiterated the district’s commitment to allowing families to opt out of materials for any reason. “I view this resolution as an opportunity for our school district to build bridges with families, particularly on deeply personal matters. Through stronger relationships and trust, we can pave the way for more extraordinary academic achievement and long-term success for all our students.”

Parents react

As the school board discussed its resolution, some of the Somali parents who requested opt-outs for their children watched.

“It was very difficult for me to attend the district’s February 28 board meeting, where the Board passed a resolution which demonstrates hostility toward religious parents like me, and toward any parents who would like to know what their children are learning in school,” Fatuma Irshat, one of the parents who requested alternative instruction for her children, said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that the school board is resorting to this tactic. Our community is already marginalized, and now we are being treated as if we do not exist.”

The parents would continue advocating for the right to review curriculum and opt out of lessons that contradict their religious beliefs, she said.

“The School Board is making its hostility toward our clients clear,” said Toney, Fatuma’s attorney. “They’ve even admitted that they would rather hide what they are teaching from parents than provide them advance notice like the law requires.”

She described the call for a legislative change as “aggressively hostile” and pointed out that religion, too, was a protected class.

“We will keep monitoring to make sure our clients—and other parents across Minnesota—keep their opt-out rights,” she said.

Changes to the law?

Representative Larry Kraft, DFL-St. Louis Park, praised the school board’s resolution.

“I want to thank our school board for this excellent resolution that is consistent with the values of our St. Louis Park community,” he said in a statement to Sahan Journal. “They have consistently followed the law and are pointing out inconsistencies in state statute between alternative instruction opt-out requirements and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The situation has made it clear that a broader statewide discussion is necessary, and I look forward to working on that in the coming months.”

But it was not immediately clear whether a law change had broad support.

Governor Tim Walz’s office and the Minnesota Queer Legislators Caucus did not respond to requests for comment. The governor’s education bill, introduced on February 21 to the Minnesota Senate Education Policy Committee, includes a prohibition on banning books from school and public libraries. The bill, however, explicitly says that it does not intend to change the parental curriculum review statute.

“Nothing in this section impairs or limits the rights of a parent, guardian, or adult student to request a content challenge,” reads the text of the bill.

Kat Rohn, executive director for OutFront Minnesota, said that they had spoken in recent months with a number of metro school districts experiencing an uptick in opt-out requests, including at schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Hopkins, Apple Valley, and Ham Lake. OutFront has been in conversation with the Minnesota Department of Education, seeking more clarity from the agency on how districts should be implementing the existing law, Rohn said.

“We’re not expecting that there will be a change in the law based on timing and how these conversations are evolving before the end of this session,” Rohn said. “There’s not a clear easy fix for it.”

However, Rohn said, OutFront Minnesota would likely advocate for better guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education. Rohn would like to see the state provide both a definition of instructional materials, and the scope of how districts should comply with requests for alternative instruction.

“Without clarity in the law, that leaves districts to make those decisions themselves or litigate them in court, which is not a great space for districts to have to navigate,” Rohn said.

In a brief statement to Sahan Journal, the Minnesota Department of Education said: “We look forward to finding out more about how we can support local school communities in navigating this issue.”

The challenge for school districts, Rohn said, was to “accommodate community needs in a reasonable way.” Rohn said that meant allowing people to opt out of a specific classroom material, but not an entire subject—especially a protected class. Otherwise, the requests could become untenable for schools and harmful for students.

“You need to be able to have classroom conversations about people’s varied religions, LGBTQ identities, race and ethnicity,” Rohn said, citing Minnesota’s anti-discrimination laws. “You can’t just have people opting out broadly of those topics for classroom discussions without it causing harm to those diverse communities.”

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