Staff members in the Central Bucks School District could soon face disciplinary action for advocating to students about “partisan, political or social policy issues.”
The proposal, advanced after discussion at a policy meeting this month, is up for consideration at next month’s school board meeting and could be adopted as early as February, according to school officials.
The controversial policy, which has spurred an outside investigation into the district’s treatment of LGBTQ students, says employees “shall not display any flag, banner, poster, sign, sticker, pin, button, insignia, paraphernalia, photograph, or other similar material that advocates concerning any partisan, political, or social policy.”
It was retooled, at the recommendation from district legal counsel, who nixed language which previously referred to “beliefs about sexual orientation” and “beliefs about gender identity” as topics for which teachers to avoid advocating.
The revisions did little to quell the heated debate at a recent committee meeting, with supporters claiming the measure is solely intended to keep classrooms “neutral” and ensure students are educated rather than “indoctrinated.”
But critics feel the policy is too vaguely worded and makes teachers targets for parents who could interpret lessons as having political and policy slants with which they disagree.
At the Dec. 14 meeting, the Republican majority was asked to more narrowly define “social policy issues.”
Abortion was mentioned as one example, and board president Dana Hunter told The Inquirer in a statement the policy prohibits Pride flags “just as it would prohibit, for example, the display of Blue Lives Matter flags, antiabortion flags, or any other flags that advocate on social policy issues.”
The struggle plays out at the same time that the district faces a U.S. Department of Education investigation based on allegations laid out in a complaint filed earlier this year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
The organization claims the district has created a hostile environment for LGBTQ students, pointing in part to a recent decision from district officials requiring staff members to remove Pride flags from their classrooms because they conveyed political sentiments.
The school district hired the law firm Duane Morris, of which former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain is a partner, to review the ACLU’s claims and review the district’s policies.
Jamie Walker, who has three children attending district schools, said the issue was being overblown by political factions upset by GOP control of the board.
“I personally think the Democratic Party is using it to try to sway people to vote for them during school board elections,” she told DVJournal in a recent interview. “They want to try to paint our Republican school board members as anti-gay, anti-inclusive. I don’t know why they’re making it such a big deal. I think parents want to keep all classrooms neutral.”
One board member worried teachers who displayed pictures of same-sex spouses would subject to harassment.
And others who spoke during public comment said it opened up a Pandora’s box, potentially deterring other forms of advocacy, such as autism awareness.
Retired Bucks Central teacher Katherine Semisch said students are already increasingly uncomfortable with being exposed to a curriculum that doesn’t jibe with their beliefs.
Such a policy, in addition to alienating LGBTQ students, could stymie intellectually honest conversations in classrooms, she added.
“Where is the evidence of any indoctrination? It’s a policy based on runaway fears,” Semisch said. “Students become adversaries, spying and reporting out on their teachers. … This is a problem, not a goal.”
Advocates said the policy carved out exemptions protecting teachers from unnecessary parental intrusion.
The policy says instruction on political and social issues is allowed “when directly relevant to the curriculum and appropriate to classroom studies given the students’ age, class year, and course of study; provided, however, that such instruction or study is not to advocate concerning a partisan, political, or social policy issue.”
Walker believes the district is “being run great,” and she’s “fine with my kids learning about all sorts of things.” But felt it’s best if teachers keep political opinions to themselves.
“What happened in Bucks County during COVID, it just opened up parents’ eyes to what’s going on with their schools and how politicized they’ve become. Parents are sick of it,” she said. “People just want their kids to get educated. Keep politics out of this.”