The Pennridge school board is debating policies including ‘teacher advocacy.’ Here’s where those guidelines stand.

Nearly two months after the Pennridge school board proposed a draft policy that critics initially feared would limit students’ free speech, a vote is expected this week on a revised version that focuses on rules for students hanging fliers in school.

In the meantime, the board continues to revise other policy proposals — including what teachers may discuss and display in classrooms, and new regulations for classroom and library books — while residents of the Bucks County district have signaled vehement opposition and support. Some have questioned why the district protocols were put forward in the first place.

“You have to ask, where was the problem to begin with?” said Sharon Ward, senior policy adviser with the Education Law Center. “These are policies in search of a problem.”

Here are some of the policies being debated and where they stand:

The all-Republican school board is poised to vote Tuesday on its policy addressing “student dissemination of nonschool materials,” which originally contained wording that advocates called vague and feared would infringe on students’ freedom of speech.

Now, in its current form, the policy provides guidelines for where Pennridge students can hang posters that are not part of the curriculum or extracurricular programs.

Per the policy, “non-school materials” must be approved by the principal or a designee at least one week in advance, and may be displayed on designated bulletin boards in district schools. Officials will not censor content if it is critical of the school or its administration, or if views espoused “may make people uncomfortable,” the policy states.

Early versions introduced in the summer raised red flags among free speech and civil rights groups, who called the draft unconstitutional. The Bucks County NAACP branch, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the national Human Rights Campaign, the Education Law Center, and the Pennsylvania ACLU publicly condemned the proposal.

But during an August meeting, Pennridge Superintendent David Bolton and board members said the initial wording using “student expression” was a miscommunication and revised the policy language.

Board member Ricki Chaikin said she believes the policy expands student expression, and “actually gives them the opportunity to express themselves in a way the school district does not have to let them do.”

Another policy proposal addresses “teacher advocacy,” and states that school employees “shall not engage in advocacy activities” during work hours on school property and must “retain their personal views and remain neutral on advocacy-related matters.”

Board members have said the policy was drafted in response to a small number of teachers advocating for what they called social and political causes in class, pointing, as example, to teachers distributing forms asking for students’ preferred pronouns and permission to share the information with their parents.

The policy also follows the board’s decision last spring to scrap the district’s diversity, equity, and inclusion program last spring, with some members concerned over an increase in activism in classrooms.

» READ MORE: A Bucks County school district dropped its diversity program. Black families say the district isn’t acknowledging racism.

“Neutrality in both curriculum and classroom instruction is paramount to creating an atmosphere of inclusiveness, where all students, regardless of their beliefs and opinions, feel welcome,” the draft states. “Because personal beliefs about political, social, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity are often deeply personal and of supreme importance to many members of the school community, staff members should not advocate their personal beliefs in the classroom.”

No action on the policy is likely until at least late October, Bolton noted. The policy, he said, ensures “our curriculum is balanced, neutral, and comprehensive.”

In the eyes of Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, the draft is still “vague and overbroad,” and he questioned how to define “advocacy.” Such guidelines may be difficult for teachers to follow, he said.

“Under those circumstances, when if you get it wrong, you can get in trouble and lose your job, you’re just gonna stay completely away from it,” he said.

In a September meeting, board president Joan Cullen said teachers should still advocate for students for educational purposes.

“We’re talking about different kinds of advocacy, which should be best left to parents or guardians or families,” she said.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association declined to comment on the policy.

During a meeting last week, one board member suggested that the district — not the school board — should issue a directive, citing a Supreme Court ruling, to instruct teachers against having any flags in classrooms. There could still be a place in schools for pride flags or others, he said, on student club advertisements.

Following increased scrutiny of LGBTQ symbols in schools around the country, the flag has been a focal point of Pennridge’s public comment.

“The classrooms should be a safe and inclusive space for all students, not just the LGBTQ students,” one resident said at a committee meeting. Another suggested the American flag should stand for all students, while one said the rainbow flag was offensive to Christians.

Visibly upset, Raylene Vesh, who attended the board’s latest meeting with her wife, implored the board to seek compromise.

“The LGBTQ kids — they do need to feel accepted,” she said. “You wonder why they don’t want to tell you what they’re struggling with, because they hear this hatred.”

Another board member suggested placing a poster in place of flags in each classroom, displaying the Pennridge mascot with the message: “You are loved, valued and supported for who you are.”

Bolton said it’s too early in the policy process to act on either of the suggestions.

Ryan Matthews, the Human Rights Campaign’s Pennsylvania state director, questioned why pride flags in class are even an issue.

“I don’t understand how a quiet gesture of support is alienating to somebody who is straight or any other expression of gender identity,” Matthews said. Displaying a pride flag, he said, is “the ability for teachers to signal to- risk students that they are a safe and welcoming adult that they can turn to.”

Studies show that spaces perceived to be affirming can save young LGBTQ people’s lives. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that LGBTQ youth are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts, and are significantly more likely to experience bullying and rejection.

» READ MORE: Central Bucks parents protest removal of Pride flags and other actions they say are hostile to LGBTQ students

Also before the Pennridge board: a draft policy that would require new books in classrooms and libraries — among other instructional materials — to be selected, in consultation with professional staff, by the superintendent or a designee, and approved by the board.

The draft says that books and other resources will be selected based on educational significance and district curriculum with an eye on “age-inappropriate sexualized content,” and if they represent a “balanced diversity of viewpoints and the contributions of varied religious, ethnic, gender and cultural groups.”

In an email, Bolton said “our library professionals have been involved with the drafting of the language and will continue to be the ones who select our library resources.”

In July, the Central Bucks School District — also in Bucks County — passed a contentious library policy targeting “sexualized content” — which comes amid a national surge in schoolbook policies and restrictions focusing on LGBTQ+ characters and sexual content, according to a report by PEN America.

In Pennridge, a vote on this policy is unlikely until at least late October, Bolton said.

If any of the policies are approved, Bolton said, they will have been discussed at a minimum of six public meetings, with input from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button