At a contentious meeting Tuesday evening, the Central Bucks School Board voted 6-3 to pass a policy requiring teachers not to discuss various personal political views in classrooms.
“Neutrality and balance in classroom instruction are desired in order to create an optimal learning environment and atmosphere of inclusiveness, where all students are welcome. Because views and beliefs about partisan, political, or social policy matters are often deeply personal, employees should not, during assigned work hours, advocate to students concerning their views or beliefs on these matters,” Policy 321 states.
During nearly two hours of public comment, many teachers, students and residents objected to the policy that would ban gay pride flags, MAGA hats, or other items deemed partisan from classrooms. Others strongly supported the policy and thanked the majority of board members who favored it.
“The conversation we had at the policy meeting was hot. I sincerely hope my fellow board members listen with an open heart…this policy also includes language that I’ve said out loud. We should be teaching how to think, not what to think,” said Board Member Tabitha Dell Angelo.
Board Member Karen Smith said she had heard from many community members who opposed the policy and very few who approved.
“The policy is the very opposite of education,” she said. It is an “embarrassing inventory of restrictions on personal freedoms.”
Vice President Leigh Vlasblom disagreed. “It doesn’t stifle the amazing work that our teachers do. We have other policies that encourage our teachers to have these conversations that support students.
“It just says ‘do it’ as a mindset to be welcome to all opinions,” Vlasblom said, “This policy does not inhibit that. It does not address student speech.”
Board Member Debra Cannon responded to Smith’s claims.
“Pain is pain. Mrs. Smith, I find it ironic for someone who works at an IU supports a Twitter account that lampoons me…Why wouldn’t you champion the success of all students? I’d rather cultivate an environment in our district that is fruitful…Are you telling the students the truth?”
“Do you want students to keep secrets from their first teachers, their parents?” she asked. “We’ve always asked for age appropriateness.”
Earlier in the day, Board President Dana Hunter explained to the Delaware Valley Journal about why she believed policy 321 needed to be passed.
“It provides an atmosphere of inclusiveness,” said Hunter about the policy, noting that students come from diverse backgrounds and should feel “comfortable to express themselves.”
Asked whether the opposition to the policy was political because it is an election year for some school board members, she said, “I can’t speculate.”
“Everything has become very divisive,” she said.
The policy tells teachers to “maintain a neutral environment and not use the classroom to indoctrinate the students.” Some 99 percent of the teachers do not have a problem with the policy, she said. They “do a wonderful job.”
In the past, some teachers put gay rights flags and other political propaganda in their classrooms, she added. That would no longer be permitted in under the new policy.
However, she said teachers can talk about politics in the context of the curriculum.
The district “encourages teachers to teach history and do so in a balanced manner,” she said. They should “focus on the curriculum in a balanced manner and not advocate.”
Some critics say the policy will give parents a cudgel to use against teachers.
“This is completely false,” said Hunt. If someone comes to her and complains about a teacher, she tells them to go to the teacher and talk to them because there is probably a misunderstanding. If that does not work, they should go to the principal, not the school board.
“All we (the board members) do is set expectations,” said Hunter. “It is up to the district to carry out this policy.”
As for the 72-page ACLU complaint filed with the federal Department of Education that is “largely redacted,” the “district has no knowledge” about much of it. But it does mention the policy and a library book policy the district previously adopted.
The ACLU claims the policy discriminates against LGBTQ students.
“The district hired the law firm, Duane Morris,” to study the complaint and write a report. She hopes the report will be issued soon. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, who ran for governor, is handling the investigation.
Several speakers complained about the district’s spending on legal fees and a public relations firm. However, another resident pointed out that insurance paid most of the legal tab.