Central Bucks School District Looks to Muzzle Teachers in the Classroom

The right-wing majority school board’s paranoia that teachers are “coercing” and “indoctrinating” students has manifested itself in a policy that will lead to censorship in classrooms.
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School Board elections matter. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Central Bucks School District, where the right-wing majority school board and a marionette for a superintendent are pushing through policy after policy that is harmful to students, teachers, and quality education. 

The latest, Policy 321 (Political, Sociopolitical, and Other Related Communications), was scheduled for a final reading and a vote on Tuesday, though it has been removed from the meeting agenda with an explanation expected tomorrow. As written, this, what seems to be intentionally vague dictate for teachers, wants to police what they say and will subsequently create a climate of fear and self-censorship for Central Bucks teachers.  

Here is what the policy states about curriculum and instruction (I will bold language that is problematic):

1. Discussion and study of politics and sociopolitical issues, religious issues, or sexual orientation and gender identity issues when applicable to the curriculum and appropriate to classroom studies. When applicable, such topics will be presented in a balanced and factual manner that does not trend to indoctrinate to a particular point of view and that is appropriate for the age and maturity level of the students engaged in the discussion. 

2. Conduct of student elections and connected campaigning. 

3. It is not considered advocacy of personal beliefs for a teacher to briefly answer a student’s questions about politics, sociopolitical issues, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion. However, employees are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that does not attempt to coerce students to a particular viewpoint.

So first, the accusatory language written into the policy is deplorable and insulting to teachers, said school board member Karen Smith. She, along with Tabitha Dell’Angelo and Mariam Mahmud voted against the first reading of the policy change in October.

“I find the intention of this policy to be disrespectful and demeaning to our staff. Using words like ‘indoctrinate’ and ‘coerce’ to describe how our staff might interact with our students is disparaging and insulting,” Smith told the Bucks County Beacon. “I trust our teachers to handle all topics in a balanced manner.” 

Now, do some people really think teachers are trying to “indoctrinate” and “coerce” students? Yes. There is a already a small, but loud minority of far-right community members (not all of whom are even parents of students) who previously accused teachers and librarian of being “groomers” because of LGBTQ books in school libraries and works of literature like “The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.” And this is the tiny angry mob that the right-majority (Dana Hunter, Leigh Vlasblom, Debra Cannon, Lisa Sciscio, Sharon Collopy, Debra Cannon, and Jim Pepper) caters to – all at the expense of teachers, students, and the quality of education the district provides. 

Katherine Semisch, a recently retired Central Bucks School District English teacher from Doylestown, told the Bucks County Beacon that this lack of trust is devastating for the district’s community.

“It’s a terrible loss for the community if teachers are not trusted by parents,” said Semisch. “For parents to mistrust teachers in the way that they evidently now do, at least a small number of them, is a terrible loss.”

She added that those who lose the most are the kids. That is, in part, because this policy as written will strip teachers of their ability to teach and may lead many, especially younger teachers, to self-censor. 

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“There is insufficient guidance both for the policers of the policy and those subject to it, meaning that anything goes and no one subjected to the policy will, or can know in advance, how it will be enforced,” ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Witold Walczak told the Bucks County Beacon

So for example, if a teacher challenges a student during a classroom discussion, not to suggest they are wrong necessarily, but to engage them in a way that encourages critical thinking in order to elicit a stronger argument and deeper analysis, that could be misinterpreted by a student, administrator, and definitely by a school board member as “indoctrination” or “coercion.” And we’ve already established by the language of this policy and the behavior of the school board majority – not to mention the absolute lack of support by Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh – that the district does not trust teachers. 

“The language in this policy is vague and if the policy passes I am very concerned teachers will be uncomfortable with any topic which could be deemed ‘political,’” said Smith. “This would have a chilling effect on authentic conversations in our classrooms.”

The ACLU’s Walczak has concerns about the language as well. “It’s probably unconstitutionally vague, but a challenge is stronger once its been applied in a arbitrary, capricous and/or discriminatory way,” he added.

This potentially opens the door to McCarthyite witch hunts, if not teacher tribunals for any educator who may have had an open and honest conversation about race, history, or god forbid any LGBTQ+ topic that someone may not deem “balanced” or sufficiently “factual” (a term that has taken on a whole new meaning with some Republicans). In New Hampshire, for instance, the state GOP tried to pass a Cold War-style “loyalty” law for teachers. I almost didn’t even want to include this in the article for fear of giving this school board any ideas. 

READ: Central Bucks School District’s Cruelty Toward LGBTQ+ Students May Finally Get The Scrutiny It Deserves

And in addition to its attack on curriculum, the new policy wants to sanitize classrooms from symbols the school board and superintendent think are potentially controversial, or offensive, like an LGBTQ+ Pride flag. Apparently they are catering to the pro-conversion therapy crowd. The Department of Education is currently investigating the school district for allegedly creating a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students.

And now the school district wants to hire failed Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial candidate and former federal prosecutor William McSwain to conduct an internal investigation as to whether the ACLU’s complaint has merit. Keep in mind McSwain attacked a West Chester middle school students’ Gender-Sexuality Alliance club as “leftist political indoctrination.”

One good thing about the delayed vote is that the community has more time to educate, organize, and mobilize opposition to this. A place to start is with the group Advocates for Inclusive Education. And now might be the time to start organizing around next year’s elections, with five seats up for grabs.

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Cyril Mychalejko

Cyril Mychalejko is the Editor-in-Chief of the Bucks County Beacon. Read his columns on Sundays and follow him on Twitter.