Mila Koumpilova, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published October 14 2012
Minnesota students join in debate on marriage
Twin Cities high schools have taken different tacks to navigating the contentious issue as the debate over it heats up weeks before the Nov. 6 election – an especially delicate task at parochial schools mindful of the stances their churches have taken.
Some educators at public and private schools see the amendment as a prime teachable moment; others say hot-button issues might be best reserved for parents. By all accounts, students find the issue compelling.
“Students are more engaged by this issue than even the presidential election,” said Eric Erickson, a social studies teacher at St. Paul’s Como Park Senior High. “It’s something they can relate to. It’s about relationships.”
Joe McLean’s fifth-grade son and his friends discussed the amendment in the Minneapolis’ Annunciation Catholic School cafeteria after a class on the seven sacraments.
Carolyn Burns’ teenagers at Providence Academy in Plymouth countered arguments in support of gay marriage that classmates posted on Facebook and Twitter.
At Como Park High, senior Joe Krivit said students might launch into an impromptu debate over the amendment during recess. Some wear T-shirts that spell out their positions.
The amendment would define marriage as only between a man and woman in the state constitution, strengthening Minnesota laws that already ban gay marriage.
Pollsters are watching youths’ opinions on gay marriage closely because they largely account for a recent shift in public perception. According to a Pew survey this summer, 63 percent of millenials – those born after 1980 – support gay marriage, compared with about 40 percent of baby boomers.
Because young people tend not to vote, “our views sometimes get squashed by the older generations,” said Krivit, 17.
Last spring, a presentation on marriage went awry at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis and drew national news coverage.
From January through the end of the school year, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis sent a priest and a married couple to 13 Catholic high schools to give presentations. At DeLaSalle, some students angrily debated the speakers or walked out when the talk turned to gay marriage.
Archbishop John Nienstedt announced the visits last fall in a speech focused on the importance of the marriage amendment.
But archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso said the presentations were an apolitical discussion of the sanctity of marriage, not a get-out-the-vote exercise. And though some schools invited only seniors, the talks were open to all high schoolers.
“These presentations went swimmingly 99 percent of the time,” he said.
Susan Creel, whose daughter graduated from Hill-Murray School in the spring, said she expressed concerns when she learned that archdiocese speakers would address seniors the morning of prom.
She commended the Maplewood Catholic school, though, for how it handled the situation, assuring parents the amendment would not come up and – after first saying there would be no time for questions or comments – allowing a discussion after the talk.
Laura Kuntz, a parent at Cretin-Derham Hall High in St. Paul, said she worries the amendment and the archdiocese’s forceful support have placed Catholic schools in a tricky spot: Students are eager to debate the issue openly, while schools don’t want to come across as encouraging dissent from the church’s stance.
“I worry Catholic high schools may get caught in the generational divide on this issue between older folks, who are generous donors, and the students, who may look at this issue differently,” Kuntz said.
Administrators at about a dozen Catholic high schools and other Christian schools in the Twin Cities declined to be interviewed.
Burns, the Providence Academy parent, said teachers at the Catholic school did discuss the amendment at length, including the perfect passage record of similar amendments in other states. Students opposed to the amendment were allowed to speak up, she said.
As a parent, Burns said, she expects educators at the school to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church on this and other social issues.
And she said she appreciated the archdiocese’s presentation on marriage. It did not go into the amendment debate beyond touching on it at the end, she said: “Oh, and by the way, there will be an amendment on the ballot in November.”
As with other contentious social issues, many schools continue to tread with caution on gay marriage, said David Masci, senior research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
“A lot of schools find that it is difficult to work topics like same-sex marriage that are the subject of heated debate into the curriculum,” he said. “No matter what you put in, some people will be very angry.”
Still, some local educators said the amendment makes for a great teachable moment.
“If it’s on the ballot, it’s in the classroom,” said Julie Blaha, the teachers union president in the Anoka-Hennepin district. “It has to be. You can’t do a good social studies class without bringing this up right now.”
In Anoka-Hennepin, Blaha said, the February repeal of a contentious district policy that directed staff to remain neutral while discussing homosexuality helped ease confusion and anxiety during classroom talks about the amendment.
“The new policy was a big relief knowing a marriage amendment discussion was coming up,” she said.
The district’s new Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy gives educators much clearer guidance, Blaha said.
Erickson, the Como Park High teacher, said he used the amendment twice in his Advanced Placement government class: to teach about different takes on social issues along the political spectrum and in teaching about federalism.
At the private, nonsectarian Mounds Park Academy in Maplewood, social studies teacher Katie Murr said encouraging students to debate issues such as the amendment is a worthwhile exercise.
“These discussions help students grapple with complicated, emotional topics in a calm, rational way,” she said. “They also teach students to move beyond sound-bite types of responses because they have to defend their positions.”
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