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Carroll County school board votes to keep classrooms ‘politically neutral,’ discusses race’s place in curriculum

Carroll County’s Board of Education unanimously voted Wednesday to have the superintendent develop a policy that keeps a politically neutral stance in the classroom and in the school’s curriculum.

The motion and vote was made at the end of a meeting that started with several parents and one student speaking against critical race theory. Those who spoke during citizen participation called the theory racist against white students.

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The American Bar Association notes that critical race theory “recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past” but acknowledges that slavery, segregation “and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color” still impacts the nation today.

Carroll school leaders have said the system does not teach critical race theory and has no plans to add it to its curriculum.

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Board member Donna Sivigny made the motion toward the end of the meeting to keep politics out of the classroom. It was seconded by fellow member Tara Battaglia. She said the issue has been divisive from the local to the national level, and she “thinks it’s important to be unified.”

Sivigny added that the declaration is not a change in school policy, but the stance needs to be reinforced. Specifically, she’d like to see critical theory, critical race theory, the 1619 project and the 1776 project as items banned from classrooms.

“I think we need to take a politically neutral stance,” she said.

The existing board’s policy, titled “political activities of Carroll County Public Schools Employees,” states that although employees are allowed to participate in politics or political campaigns, they cannot engage in political activity while on the job during working hours, advocate the overthrow of government by unconstitutional and violent means, or be obligated to contribute or render political service during working hours.

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Superintendent Steve Lockard said they want classes to have rich conversations about what’s happening in the world. He said the election cycle is an example. But if a staff member chooses to insert a belief, it becomes “unpolitically neutral.”

Board member Ken Kiler said politics are more than Democrats and Republicans and acknowledged the challenge of updating the policy.

“This isn’t easy but I think it definitely is time to get something with some meat on its bones,” Kiler said.

During the citizen participation part of the meeting, speakers — some clad in shirts that said “equality not equity” — called for equity efforts to be banned, stating it is a disguise for critical race theory.

Lockard said the state of Maryland requires public schools to have an equity policy.

“We can’t not have an equity policy,” he said, adding they do their best to follow the tenants of that policy. “For some people, that goes against perhaps their political views.”

Judy Jones, the system’s equity and inclusion officer, said in an interview that incorporating equity in schools is looking at how they make sure students who are not in the majority have access to the same education and opportunity.

She said it does require a focus on underrepresented groups to make sure they are not forgotten, but it does not mean other groups receive no focus.

“It means that I have to be sure that we’re meeting the needs of students and I’m considering their socio-economic status, family dynamics, gender expression and sexual orientation,” Jones said. “Considering their race, ethnicity, their religion, so that when I consider them, I make sure they are at the table.”

Devanshi Mistry, the student board member, said she does believe education should be politically neutral. However, some topics, like gender and race, need to be discussed. They are important to students and these discussions help students prepare for college and careers, she added.

“I think we should teach students how to have those conversations rather than just blank slate saying that ‘no politics at all,’ ” Mistry said.

Board member Patricia Dorsey said the system needs training on the subject and noted that people are lumping everything under “politics.” She said one of the best examples she heard to describe equity is giving a 10-speed bicycle to a toddler, elementary student, middle school student and a student in a wheelchair. Not all students would benefit from it. Dorsey suggested having staff from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education come out to work with the board on the training.

Sivigny said she fully agrees with equity, but the instances of teachers making “strong political leanings” is increasing in numbers. She said some teachers are making decisions for students and said, as an example, conversations have been “let’s debate why somebody was a hero” rather than debating if they are a hero.

Battaglia suggested the new policy have definitions of words like “equity,” “equality” and “bias.”

And Kiler said parents and advocates should be respected and not bullied for their beliefs.

“We need to respect them and we need to furnish a school that serves them,” he said.

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