A vote on a new Frederick County Board of Education policy on the teaching of controversial issues and topics has once again been delayed after the school system’s Racial Equity Committee shared concerns with board members regarding the policy’s name and specific language.
Policy 516, as it’s officially called, lays out guidelines and standards for Frederick County Public Schools teachers on how to discuss controversial topics in the classroom and the use of historical artifacts in teaching.
The proposal came about following an incident in early 2020, when a Nazi flag was seen by parents and students hanging in the window of a Gov. Thomas Johnson High School classroom during a Friday evening basketball game.
The yet-to-be-approved policy states that historical artifacts may be used in the context of curricular objectives and recognizes the importance of using artifacts to teach students to be critical thinkers. It defines controversial issues as “a point or matter about which there exist significant opposing viewpoints and/or multiple perspectives.”
A discussion of controversial issues, per the draft language, may be held when the issue has political, economic or social significance, when students are provided access to credible and relevant information related to the topic, when the issue is presented in a setting free of bias or judgment and when students are able to form their own opinions on the issue without jeopardizing their relationship with the teacher or school.
Additionally, the policy states that teachers are responsible for presenting all views on a subject and teachers may share their own personal views as long as it is presented as an opinion rather than a fact.
Since the policy was first presented to the board in November, numerous edits have been made on direction from board members. The policy was on the board’s agenda for approval during its March 24 meeting, but it was then removed due to concerns raised by the Racial Equity Committee.
The committee was launched last summer and is made up of FCPS staff, parents and county residents.
The committee focuses on identifying discrimination or harassment within the school system, raising awareness of implicit bias and eliminating or mitigating racial inequity or its effects across the entire school system. The committee makes recommendations to the board on aspects related to racial equity and the equity policy within the educational programs of FCPS.
In a statement read to board members during the meeting, the committee requested the policy be pulled from the consent agenda so discussion could be had about renaming the policy.
“Teaching of controversial issues has a negative connotation and does not adequately convey to our students that opposing viewpoints are acceptable,” the statement reads. “We would like to propose that the board consider renaming this policy a title such as discussions about historical and current events within the classroom.”
Committee chair Kisha Coa elaborated via email and said the committee believes that framing issues as controversial will deter students and teachers from wanting to engage in discussions about issues that are important to have.
The committee has also requested that the word controversial when used in the main language of the policy be substituted with the phrase “multiple viewpoints.” However, Coa made it clear that the committee wants to ensure there is a distinction between events that can have multiple viewpoints and events, whether past or present, that are clearly right or wrong.
For example, historical and current events that express hate toward another group of people whether based on race, ethnicity, culture, creed or sexual preference should be presented as such in the classroom, Coa said.
“For example, the Holocaust, Japanese Internment Camps in the United States and slavery—each of these events in our country’s past have clearly demonstrated hate toward a group of people,” Coa said. “Items holding multiple viewpoints, such as ... the proposal of the Green New Deal, FDR’s New Deal, the passing of Obamacare should be discussed in the classroom through an equity lens.”
When asked how the committee feels about bringing historical items—such as a Nazi flag—into the classroom, Coa reiterated that items that clearly express hate toward a group of people should be displayed as such.
“We do not believe that physical artifacts are a necessary part of students’ understanding of new concepts within the curriculum,” she said.
The committee understands that FCPS students and teachers come from a wide variety of backgrounds and may hold both opposing viewpoints and implicit biases, Coa said, but hate should not be tolerated.
The committee is also asking that FCPS provide teachers with professional learning opportunities to prepare them for future discussions in relation to the proposed policy. It’s not clear when the policy will return to the board for a vote.