It happened often during the past year.
Carlisle High School students approached Dorene Wilbur with questions about the issues of the day.
They wanted to hear her perspective on Black Lives Matter, antifa, George Floyd and militia groups.
The English teacher welcomed the questions from students in and out of her 10th-grade classroom.
“They know me,” Wilbur said. “I’m one of the few Black educators in the system. They come to me because they want information so that they can make up their own minds.”
Each and every time, she prefaced her opinion with the words “I am speaking as an individual, not as a representative of the Carlisle Area School District.”
On Thursday, Wilbur spoke out against a revision to Policy 421 that would have barred teachers from expressing support for any political/social movement, platform or campaign during work hours on district property.
She was not alone. School board members received emails and in-person comments from employees and residents concerned that the revision could have a chilling effect on the ability of teachers and staff to engage students in teachable moments.
The board voted against the controversial revision. A second revision that redefines district property was approved.
Under Policy 421, the board recognizes and encourages the right of employees to participate in political activities on their off-hours away from district property.
Recent events prompted the proposed revision that would have barred teachers from expressing support for a cause while on school time using district property. Assistant Superintendent Colleen Friend explained the rationale during the June 10 meeting of the board governance committee.
“This year, there have been many controversial and tumultuous events in the nation,” Friend said. “Public schools have always been expected to walk a very fine line between educating students on relative and important topics and maintaining a school environment that is free from polarization, politics or students that have become politicized.
“We as professional staff must remain politically neutral,” Friend said. “We will continue to teach our students how to think, not what to think. We will help them develop the skills and practice ... critical and rigorous, analytical thinking so that they can determine for themselves the validity of everything which they are exposed to even when it’s uncomfortable.”
Heighten a divide
In the week since the committee meeting, board members have received input from district employees and residents concerned that the revision was too vague and subject to misinterpretation.
“If I understand the policy correctly, this puts a tape across my mouth,” Wilbur told board members Thursday. The revision would prohibit her from engaging in conversations with students who otherwise lack opportunities to ask a Black educator questions about what is going on in today’s society, she said.
Taytum Robinson-Covert, who graduated from Carlisle High School in 2020, said that as a student, she was active in an effort on campus to promote diversity and a more inclusive climate.
“Why the interest to shut down these important discussions?” she asked board members Thursday. “I understand the reason for not having staff promote their political views but there is a difference between trying to influence students one way or another and facilitating meaningful conversations when a polarizing event occurs.
“This policy will not resolve or even alleviate the political divide that is present,” Robinson-Covert said. “It will only heighten it. If a politicized event occurs and no one is allowed to talk about it that would only leave students to their own echo chamber environment, which only further draws the divide. If teachers are not allowed to deconstruct and analyze current politicized events, then how will students learn to formulate their own beliefs?”
TaWanda Stallworth of Lower Swatara Township is a Carlisle alumna and co-chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Carlisle Borough. One function of the commission is to examine the impact policies could have on borough residents in terms of racial equality within the community. Stallworth called on board members to table a vote on the Policy 421 revision and invited them to collaborate with the commission on a public hearing on the matter.
“The merits of this policy are debatable,” Stallworth said. “After all that we have been through in the past year, we owe it to ourselves, and more importantly to our students, to ensure that our steps forward are thoughtful, well-discerned, appropriate and needful. That we are encouraging our students to be critical thinkers committed to analysis for understanding their individual contexts to prepare them to be leaders in a world that we have never experienced before.”
Board President Paula Bussard made the motion to delete the controversial revision. She had concerns about changing a policy that has existed in the district for over 20 years.
Specifically, Bussard was worried that the revision barring teachers from expressing support of a cause could be misinterpreted. It’s possible that wearing a wristband urging people to donate blood could be construed as a social movement, Bussard said. Several board members spoke out in support of eliminating the language.
“It was never the intent of the board to squelch free speech and robust discussion,” Anne Lauritzen said.
“The trouble with policies is it is not always the intent when we wrote them, but how they can be interpreted later,” said Deborah Sweaney, who questioned whether the proposed revision would violate the First Amendment.
“I am old enough to remember the late 1960s when the Vietnam War was the political movement of the time,” Sweaney said. She recalled a case where the issue of student and teacher expression was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court held that teachers as school district employees had the right to express political viewpoints.
“As it is written, this policy has significant potential legal issues,” Sweaney said. “It’s way too vague to not cause us problems later. It could very likely be misinterpreted and should not go into effect.”
“We have confidence in our teachers to do the right thing,” Rick Coplen said. “Part of the reason for that is a lot of experience listening to them and watching them in action. We count on them to appropriately implement the policies.”
Email Joseph Cress at firstname.lastname@example.org.