After reassurances from student representatives that they saw no problem with the ability to address controversial topics in class, the Durango school board decided this week not to revise the district’s current policy concerning how politically charged issues are taught in classrooms.
Board members discussed moving oversight of the controversial-topics policy from the portfolio of the superintendent to a board’s portfolio, but they unanimously rejected that course of action.
District 9-R places day-to-day educational and school policies under the purview of the superintendent.
The board’s principal responsibilities include oversight of the superintendent along with state required reviews and approvals of budgetary and taxation matters and some other items involving the federal government and broader educational goal-setting.
“If we turn this into a board policy, it’s moving us into operations. It gets us involved straight into the classroom,” said board member Mick Souder, voicing his objection to altering the policy.
The view was widely shared.
“I agree with Mick; we don’t need to be anywhere near the classroom,” said board member Andrea Parmenter.
More than a dozen people addressed the board in late October, saying they were concerned an email directive from Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger that led to the removal of several posters for Black Lives Matter and Thin Blue Line was construed by teachers to ban lessons involving controversial topics.
The email noted posters from political groups are not allowed in 9-R schools, which has a longstanding policy to remain apolitical on controversial topics.
The superintendent’s email also referenced the teaching of controversial subjects in schools – it praised the efforts of teachers to address hot topics in a fair, accurate and even-handed manner.
The email stated: “There are many teachers that are doing a phenomenal job helping students explore these topics and make their own conclusions on various controversial topics, as it is just as important that we support students on researching past and present topics and ultimately reach their own decision and stances based on their home values and personal beliefs. All sides of the issue must be presented in order to allow students to derive their own beliefs about topics that are considered controversial.”
Snowberger said the email was misinterpreted as banning addressing controversial topics in class, and he was drafting a follow-up communication with teachers to clarify that lessons involving controversial topics are allowed.
9-R’s current policy allows teachers to disclose their own views on controversial topics as long as the lesson plan is fair and unbiased toward all viewpoints on politically hot issues.
He also encouraged teachers who have questions about his communications to contact him directly for clarification.
Under current 9-R controversial-topics policy, teachers must follow guidelines to ensure fairness, accuracy and an even-handed approach is taken in the lesson. Among the guidelines is that the lesson plan must be reviewed by the school’s principal.
School board member Shere Byrd said it might be advisable to address best practices and to further convey 9-R’s policy on developing lessons on controversial subjects during professional development days for teachers.
In a closed session Nov. 11, the school board heard from its legal counsel about the legal perils involved in changing 9-R’s policy about controversial topics, which was taken from the Colorado Association of School Boards.
The association’s policy has been legally vetted, and changing wording could expose 9-R to increased risk of litigation.
Amiah Hanson, a Durango High School student representative on the school board, said in her experience controversial topics had been covered fairly and accurately, and she appreciated the even-handed approach fostered by current 9-R policy.
“I feel as long as it’s presented fairly and doesn’t have a bias, it’s good. But if lesson plans have a bias, even a little, people will pick up on it, and it isn’t good,” she said.
Paul Duft, a student representative from Big Picture High School, said he appreciates discussions in class about controversial subjects.
“It’s important to have an impartial voice. It helps teach us how to listen and to come to a conclusion,” he said.
Both student representatives advised against making any changes to the current controversial-topics policy.