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Central Bucks wants to ban teachers from advocating ‘social policy’ issues. The ACLU fears it would target LGBTQ students.

Board president Dana Hunter said the policy would prohibit Pride flags — as well as "Blue Lives Matter flags, anti-abortion flags or any other flags that advocate on social policy issues."

Audience members wave Pride flags while a parent speaks during a Central Bucks school board meeting in May. The board is now advancing a policy that bans staff from advocating to students on "partisan, political, or social policy issues."
Audience members wave Pride flags while a parent speaks during a Central Bucks school board meeting in May. The board is now advancing a policy that bans staff from advocating to students on "partisan, political, or social policy issues."Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The Central Bucks school board is advancing a policy that would ban staff members from advocating to students about “partisan, political or social policy issues,” a proposal critics said would have a chilling effect on teachers.

The policy — a revision of an earlier proposal put on hold last month after the district hired former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain to address allegations that the district’s policies discriminate against LGBTQ students — no longer refers to “beliefs about sexual orientation” or “beliefs about gender identity” as topics about which teachers cannot “advocate” to students.

But just what the updated version would prohibit was the subject of debate during a school board committee meeting Wednesday. Democrats on the board pressed the Republican majority to define “social policy” issues; board president Dana Hunter mentioned abortion but didn’t name others.

In a statement Thursday, however, Hunter said the policy would prohibit Pride flags — “just as it would prohibit, for example, the display of Blue Lives Matter flags, antiabortion flags or any other flags that advocate on social policy issues.”

Some members of the public said the policy’s language would appear to ban forms of advocacy that are familiar in schools: promoting autism awareness, for instance, or efforts to combat food insecurity.

They also questioned its stated intent to keep “classrooms as places of education, not indoctrination” — a phrase some said suggests unjustified mistrust of teachers.

Board members in the majority didn’t address the rationale behind specific revisions. “This policy has the changes that legally they said we should do,” said vice president Leigh Vlasblom, adding that the policy “creates a neutral environment.”

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Central Bucks over a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania in October, alleging the district has created a “hostile” environment for LGBTQ students.

Among the actions cited by the ACLU was the district’s call earlier this year for teachers to remove Pride flags from classrooms, with Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh likening the flags to political statements. A policy taken up by the school board in September would have formalized the ban, according to the ACLU’s complaint, restricting “decor” related to sexual orientation or gender identity.

The district tabled that policy when it hired McSwain — who as a GOP candidate for governor this year referred to one area school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance club as “leftist political indoctrination” — and the Duane Morris firm to review the district’s policies and conduct an internal investigation of the ACLU’s allegations. (The district says it’s being hindered by the ACLU and Education Department’s refusal to provide names of students who were allegedly bullied and harassed; the ACLU says the district doesn’t need names to remedy the situation.)

What the proposed policy says

While no longer specifying “sexual orientation” or “gender identity,” the revised policy taken up by the board Wednesday says employees “shall not display any flag, banner, poster” or other items “concerning any partisan, political, or social policy issue.”

Rich Ting, a staff attorney with the ACLU-PA, said, “The cynical view is they were smart enough to delete the explicit references” to sexual orientation and gender identity. But past comments by district leaders make “clear that is the target of the policy,” he said.

Hunter, in her statement, said the proposed policy “prohibits classroom advocacy on all social policy issues and is not targeted at any particular issue.”

Ting said the revised policy is “actually worse” than the original “because it’s even broader and more vague.” He questioned who would define “political, partisan, or social policy” issues, and said that without knowing district leadership’s view of Pride flags, a “reasonable person” might conclude the policy allows them.

“That’s the biggest problem,” Ting said. “It’s impossible for teachers to know what they are allowed and not allowed to do.”

Read the full policy

Fears the policy would have a chilling effect

That concern was expressed by members of the public and dissenting board members Wednesday. Katherine Semisch, a retired Central Bucks English teacher, said the policy “creates hostility between teachers and students,” placing students in an adversarial position of “reporting out” on a teacher’s comments.

“Where is the evidence of any indoctrination?” Semisch asked. “It’s a policy based on runaway fears.”

Tabitha Dell’Angelo, a Democrat on the board, said she worried the policy would spur unfair suspicion of teachers.

“My fear is that there will be parents who insist the purpose of that discussion in that classroom was ‘You’re trying to indoctrinate my kid.’ And they’re going to come to public comment, they’re going to name names, and those teachers are going to be harassed,” she said.

Vlasblom said that “you’re never going to be able to keep parents from having an opinion.” Sharon Collopy, another board member in the majority, said the policy wouldn’t restrict classroom discussion but ensure that “both sides” of an issue were presented.

She noted that the policy included several exemptions. For instance, “instruction and study concerning partisan, political, or social policy issues” would be allowed, “when directly relevant to the curriculum and appropriate to classroom studies given the students’ age, class year, and course of study.”

But Ting, of the ACLU, pointed to a caveat at the end of that exemption: “provided, however, that such instruction or study is not for the purpose of advocating concerning a partisan, political, or social policy issue.”

“Does that mean a teacher cannot give assignments that ask a student to take a position” on an issue? he asked. Or “if a student says, ‘I don’t think the Holocaust is real’ — is a teacher allowed to push back on that?”

The policy will be considered by the school board at its January meeting, Hunter said. If approved, she said, it will be voted on again in February.