The Frederick County Board of Education will further tweak a proposed policy on teaching controversial topics before bringing it back for a final vote, the board determined during a Wednesday meeting.
Policy 516, as it’s officially called, lays out guidelines and standards for 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 done 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 that teachers may share their own personal views as long as it is presented as an opinion rather than a fact.
When board members did a first reading of the new policy last November, board president Jay Mason asked for additional language to be added regarding the discussion of current events.
Mason previously told the News-Post that he would like to see greater productive dialogue about current controversial issues and the development of safe spaces to do so.
“If students want to engage in controversial conversations, as a school system, we need to make sure each and every student is valued and respected while having those conversations,” Mason said in November. “When we take into account the social-emotional well-being of all of our students, as community leaders, we need to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, so we can prepare students for effective leadership.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, the board was presented with a second reading of the policy.
Board member Jason Johnson said he would like to make sure that the responsibility of sharing different viewpoints isn’t solely on the teacher.
“I believe it should be a shared responsibility, and they should have viewpoints provided to them. It shouldn’t only be them looking for information,” he said.
Johnson added that instructional materials and artifacts should go through a review process when possible to make sure that items aren't being brought into the classroom that could be traumatizing to students.
Colleen Bernard, secondary social studies curriculum specialist for FCPS, explained that such a stringent review process is difficult to implement for a variety of reasons.
“It would be very difficult to ask to continue to expand the influx of material and to keep them timely, if every time we wanted to pull a lesson, we had to have it reviewed,” she said. “That also has some concerns about teacher autonomy in the way they interpret and deliver material. We don’t want to stifle that either by being overly prescriptive about what you can use and what you can’t use.”
There are already policies and regulations in place that dictate where source material can be pulled from and how it must align to educational standards, she said.
In addition to the second reading of the new policy, two FCPS teachers and two students were invited to the meeting to give insight on how this new policy will be helpful.
Jamie Hendi, a social studies teacher at Linganore High School, recalled when protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol in January, students needed a space to discuss the events afterward. This new policy, she said, will be helpful in guiding similar future current event discussions.
Kristina Delos Reyes, a student at Tuscarora High School, also spoke of the January riot. She is not enrolled in any social studies classes but wanted to discuss the events in school the next day. Her other teachers struggled with how to navigate such a discussion, she said.
“This policy, I think, is important for [non-social studies] teachers to have those guidelines to discussing these topics ... because I think it’s super important for all students to be able to talk about this not just in a social studies setting,” Reyes said.
The policy will undergo minor edits and will be presented to the board for final approval on March 24. If approved, FCPS staff would work to implement the policy and will most likely push it out to teachers through some form of professional learning.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct comments from school board member Jason Johnson. Johnson said instructional materials and artifacts should go through a review process when possible to make sure items aren't being brought into the classroom that could be traumatizing to students.