Every seat in the Haddonfield Memorial High School library was taken at the May 12 board of education meeting as parents and residents shared their thoughts on a policy and regulation that address classroom discussion of controversial issues.
The community’s main concern was over the following phrase in a policy up for readoption: “In the discussion of any issue, a teacher may express a personal opinion, provided the expression is characterized as personal opinion and does not attempt to persuade students to the teacher’s point of view.”
The policy – which the board has tabled temporarily – also notes that within a discussion of controversial issues, teachers should not try to persuade students on a particular point of view, but encourage fair presentation and open-mindedness.
“Our ultimate goal in this (policy and regulation) is to provide a framework of support for our teachers and a framework of support for all of our students,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Gino Priolo.
Prior to public comments, board member Lynn Howard-Hoag explained the difference between policies and regulations is that a policy recognizes what is permitted while a regulation is developed by the superintendent to address how a law works day to day. Both can be recommended or mandated by the state.
Priolo explained that after positive and negative feedback on the revised policy, he and Superintendent Chuck Klaus met with the district solicitor as well as the president of Strauss Esmay law firm to determine if either had suggestions about teachers who express personal opinions in the classroom. The solicitor advised to remove that part from the policy and the president shared that the group was working on revisions to the policy.
As a result, the board said it will revisit the policy when it receives new recommendations.
“For us, it didn’t make good sense to continue a rather contentious discussion on both sides of the argument when there’s a pending new revision coming in that our policy committee will have to review and consider,” Priolo said.
During the meeting’s public comment, community members who support the changes argued for the value and importance of being able to discuss controversial issues. With discussions, they contend, students can learn civil discourse and critical-thinking skills. There were also concerns about censorship of controversial topics.
“It is a relief that my children’s district protects my children’s ability and requires them to present both sides so students are exposed to multiple perspectives,” said parent and educator Kathleen DeCristofaro.
“In a world where algorithms determine their social feeds, I want them to know what other people think and why they think it,” she added.
Those who opposed the addition to policy argued that a teacher’s job is not to emphasize his or her opinions in the classroom because it can create a negative environment if students’ opinions differ from their instructors.
“Allowing teachers’ opinions to be included in their lessons, knowing their power and their authority, and the admiration of their students is not okay,” said parent Kathy Harting. “Teachers should be teaching and of course nurturing, but sharing their opinions, their political views or what they think about a student’s faith or gender identity does not belong in a classroom setting.”
The meeting concluded with a brief discussion on mental-health services the district will provide in the coming weeks, including Care Solace, a service that matches students to mental- health care providers.
Member David Siedell also requested that the board consider a policy to protect student privacy at school-sponsored events, in lieu of recent pictures posted by a PTA group of a middle-school dance.
The next board meeting will take place Thursday at 7 p.m. Drafts of the two measures discussed at the session are available on the district website.