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Carroll County school board discusses how policy can keep classrooms politically neutral

Carroll County school officials and board members discussed how educators should handle political conversations in the classrooms, how concerns about political discussions should be tracked and what possible changes to the existing policy addressing politics should be considered.

During Thursday’s work session, staff discussed their progress developing a policy that keeps a politically neutral stance in the classroom. The Board of Education voted in July to have a new policy implemented as parents were voicing their disapproval of critical race theory — a topic that is not taught in Carroll County Public Schools, according to school officials.

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No vote was taken, no changes were made and critical race theory was not discussed during the work session. Instead, staff proposed to shift its existing policy about campaigns to focus more on teaching polite discourse.

Ed O’Meally, legal counsel for the board, said the goal is for educators to be moderators who are “not necessarily agreeing with someone’s viewpoints.”

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Part of the proposed revisions stated that although freedom of diverse political expressions is important for employees outside of work, CCPS must remain politically neutral.

“Employees should avoid discussion of political issues, parties and candidates during classroom instruction unless and to the extent that such discussions and any related activities are aligned with the approved curriculum,” the proposed policy revision stated.

Cindy McCabe, chief of schools, walked the board through its existing policy that addressed political activities in school. It states 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.

It was developed in 1990 when schools were feeling pressured by candidates to speak to classes during their campaigns, McCabe said.

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The policy’s administrative regulations were updated two years ago to say the system does not allow schools to be forums for candidates to speak, McCabe said, unless outside organizations are using the school buildings.

Students can, however, express their political opinions, she added, though teachers must remain neutral. When political issues arise, teachers are tasked with allowing students to see both sides and politely disagree with one another.

McCabe also said teachers receive training on political regulations during their first two weeks of school.

“We’re not saying this is rampant in the school system,” board member Donna Sivigny said about teachers not being politically neutral. “But there’s certainly a small percentage of this going on.”

She said a parent sent her a lesson from an elementary school class that told students to write an opinion piece explaining why Caesar Chavez, an American civil rights activist, is a hero. She said the assignment already decided he is a hero and educators should be teaching children to think for themselves.

O’Meally said teaching any assignments that involve controversial social or political topics requires “a lot of forethought” by the teacher.

Board member Tara Battaglia asked what the repercussions would be for a teacher who is not politically neutral.

McCabe said it would be treated like any other teacher issue — they would make sure there is awareness of the issue and make it a teaching moment. If it continued to happen, they would treat it as any other disciplinary issue.

“Teachers basically have to check their bias at the door,” Sivigny said.

Sivigny added she’d like to see reporting and tracking mechanisms in place for teachers who do not follow politically neutral policy. And she suggested giving students and parents a way to report it, like a website or hotline.

O’Meally said he thinks the teacher’s union would “have a serious concern” if there was an anonymous hotline to report teachers.

“Please don’t,” board member Patricia Dorsey said, later stating she isn’t sure what they are hoping to gain from tracking everyone who is reported as being inappropriate.

However, Sivigny said there should be a way to report without fear of retribution. She later said they should have an idea of how often and where it’s happening.

Battaglia agreed with the reporting and added the board is “not trying to silence people” nor avoid teaching what really happened in history. But she said schools should teach students in a way that doesn’t place blame on anyone’s ancestors or make students feel uncomfortable. In response, Dorsey said teachers are instructed to follow the curriculum.

O’Meally said students and parents who are concerned about what’s being taught in class should reach out to the school’s principal. But he cautioned that they should know that the interaction is a “one-way dialogue.” It doesn’t mean administration will report back with what happens afterward.

“Teachers more than ever are very cautious right now on what they’re saying and what they’re doing,” Jason Anderson, chief academics, equity and accountability officer, said, adding they’re walking on eggshells and that isn’t something they want. Instead, they want teachers who can confidently teach the instruction.

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