The School Board is working on a new policy to support teachers as they present controversial curriculum material to students.
Administrators presented Policy 5420, Teaching About Controversial and Sensitive Issues, to the Curriculum and Instruction Committee on Monday. Board members questioned if such a policy is necessary, and recommended a number of changes.
A few examples of such topics that are the Holocaust, slavery, colonialization, immigration, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Ashley Ellis said. She indicated that many students have first-hand experience with immigration, making it a challenging topic for them to discuss.
The Department of Instruction defines a controversial topic as one that has “significant academic, social, political or ideological matter” about which there are opposing viewpoints or multiple perspectives.
The policy is intended to satisfy a model policy put forth by the Virginia School Boards Association to support teachers, but is not mandated by the Virginia Department of Education.
Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian) questioned whether the policy was essential.
“These days most controversial topics are also sensitive; I can’t come up with one that wouldn’t be both. I’m also struggling to figure out why at this point, so many things the division is doing is misunderstood, we’re trying to codify this in policy,” she said.
Ellis said that there was a general consensus among educators that such a policy would be helpful.
“Schools are under more scrutiny for what they’re teaching. Our teachers have asked for support in how to approach these topics with confidence,” Ellis said.
The policy also would require that all teachers are offered trainings in dealing with touchier social topics. Currently, those yearly trainings are only offered to social science teachers, and spaces in the sessions are limited.
The policy would only apply to topics currently in the curriculum.
“This isn’t a charge for teachers to impose controversial topics,” Ellis said.
Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn) suggested that the policy or its regulations should provide that parents be notified if controversial topics not included in the curriculum are being discussed in class.
“If it’s going to be that controversial and that sensitive that it’s not part of the curriculum, then I think the parents should have a choice,” Mahedavi said.
During the public comment portion of the Dec. 2 meeting of the Equity Committee, River Bend Middle School teacher Andrea Weiskopf critiqued the policy for not taking a clearer stance on Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights.
“Is the School Board ready to have parents use this policy to claim that LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter are controversial matters? Because in my classroom I will not debate the humanity of anyone,” Weiskopf said.
The Department of Instruction staff plans to revise the policy with the committee feedback before sharing it for public input ahead of the Dec. 14 School Board meeting.