A new policy aimed at maintaining political neutrality in classrooms was scheduled to be approved during Wednesday’s Carroll County school board meeting. But it was tabled after a board member pitched a mechanism for reporting alleged violations and tracking teachers who didn’t stick to the curriculum.
Board member Donna Sivigny pushed to add a process the public could follow to report teachers who violated the proposed policy. But the school system’s lawyer, Rochelle Eisenberg, warned that such a policy might violate free speech guarantees.
Board members voted to establish a new policy in July after parents voiced concerns about critical race theory, a subject that district officials say is not being taught in Carroll County schools. Sivigny made the motion toward the end of that meeting to keep politics out of the classroom.
Staff worked to adjust the existing policy that restricts employees from engaging in political activity on the job, advocating the overthrow of government by unconstitutional and violent means, or rendering political service during working hours.
When board members discussed the policy during the September meeting, staff proposed changes that would focus more on teaching polite discourse and have educators be moderators without agreeing with someone’s viewpoints.
One revision stated that CCPS would “remain neutral on political issues, parties, and candidates and ... further ensure that neither students nor employees are pressured, coerced, or obligated to endorse political viewpoints or contribute to or render service for any political candidate or party.”
Another proposed revision stated: “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.”
School officials noted that the policy is for employees so students, for instance, could invite political figures to speak at their clubs if they chose, as long as it wasn’t during classroom instruction time.
Sivigny said focusing on classroom instruction could produce a loophole. She suggested broadening the language to ban non-neutral speech throughout the entire school day, so educators can’t, for instance, schedule an assembly to have political conversations.
Eisenberg said broadening it to the entire school day could cause problems. She said the district cannot prohibit one teacher from having a private conversation about politics with another teacher, for example.
In the “guidelines” section of the policy, Sivigny suggested adding “reporting and monitoring mechanisms” so parents could fill out incident reports and inform principals of the teachers they are reporting.
Sivigny suggested a similar proposal during the September meeting. At the time, Ed O’Meally, another CCPS lawyer, said he thinks the teacher’s union would “have a serious concern” with that proposal. Board member Patricia Dorsey said at the time: “Please, don’t.”
“Do you really want to get into that?” Eisenberg asked Sivigny on Wednesday.
Eisenberg said she’s concerned speech would be so closely monitored and have teachers fear how their lessons will be perceived.
Sivigny said she thinks it’s important board members know when, where and how often politically neutral violations happen. She said she’s heard about repeat offenses from a small number of teachers “that don’t seem to be getting handled.”
“That may be opening a can of [worms] you really don’t want to have,” Eisenberg said, adding she’s concerned about First Amendment violations and a “whole big brother thing.”
Dorsey said the board should focus should be on policy, not administrative regulations.
But fellow board member Tara Battaglia said she agreed with Sivigny.
“We’re always saying we want parent involvement,” Battaglia said. “If a parent feels concerned, there should be a way to make their voices heard.”
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Lockard said he can’t speak to situations about which he hasn’t been made aware. But he stated the current protocol is for parents to report issues to the teacher, then the principal and then to central office if the parent isn’t satisfied.
Board member Ken Kiler noted that parents may not be aware of that process, which Lockard noted is outlined in the school calendar.
Dorsey said it’s been a while since she was employed in the system, but she doesn’t remember parents having a problem notifying the central office about concerns.
Sivigny noted there’s a perception in the community that incidents involving political speech are not being handled or disciplined and board members need to show they are doing something about them.
Board members and school officials said the reporting proposal could be an option instead of the current protocol. Lockard said the central office could keep track of when parents report an incident to the office after they have already talked to the principal and teacher.
Eisenburg said as the board’s legal counsel, she would suggest holding off on approving the policy because she has concerns.
Sivigny said she wanted the policy to be approved as soon as possible “but if it’s one more month, then so be it.”