Teachers in the West Ada School District may soon have new rules on what they can display in their classrooms as the district seeks to create a “neutral” classroom environment.
The district’s school board is expected to discuss and could take action Monday on an update to the district’s policy on duties and responsibilities of certified staff.
The revision lists examples of items teachers can display in their classrooms — including the Idaho state flag and banners connected with curriculum, achievements or student work — but clarifies that the policy doesn’t limit teachers’ displays to what is on that list. It also said the district believes the American flag should be displayed in every classroom.
“School property shall not be used by personnel for the advancement of individual beliefs,” the policy said. “It is the desire of the district that the physical environment of district facilities be content neutral, conducive to a positive learning environment and not a distraction to the educational environment.”
The policy also updates a section on student surveys. It requires that surveys teachers give to their students be first approved by the building principal or designee. Previously, the policy said surveys needed to be approved by the administration.
The policy provides more detail on what surveys are and the process they need to go through for approval. Surveys are defined as “any student inventory, questionnaire or other document of personal inquiry, including any start of the year or start of a coursed inventory.”
Once a survey has been approved by a building principal, it is left up to the students and their families to decide to participate, according to the policy.
Classrooms should be ‘conducive to positive learning,’ district says
The district’s goal with the revision was to make sure its policies aligned with updates to Idaho law and to make classrooms content-neutral environments, spokesperson Greg Wilson said during the July board meeting.
“West Ada classrooms should be places that are conducive to positive learning experiences for all students,” he said.
The policy has no impact on curriculum or the teaching of controversial issues, both of which are covered in other areas, Wilson said. It also doesn’t impact what teachers can wear or display on their clothing or belongings. It applies only to what can be “flown, posted, or affixed to the physical property of the district,” the policy said.
The updated policy was crafted in part by a working group that included administrators, counselors and members of the West Ada Education Association.
Teacher worries about exclusion of LGBTQ pride flag
West Ada Education Association President Zach Borman said he disagreed with the exclusion of the LGBTQ pride flag from the list of items teachers could display in their classrooms.
In a statement to the Statesman, he said he understands why the district want to “ensure political neutrality with anything that public funds have paid for. ” Some districts and schools across Idaho have faced attacks in recent years and accusations of indoctrination.
“Where I find this policy problematic is that it ends up implying some items that are human rights issues as political in nature,” said Borman, who clarified he was not speaking on behalf of the union. “One of the things, while not mentioned specifically in the policy that is clearly excluded by the policy, is the LGBTQ pride flag.”
Borman said some may view that as political, but he argued that others see it as a human rights issue.
“By implying it falls under the political umbrella, the district tacitly takes (one) side on the issue,” he said.
The district is taking a number of steps to make sure students aren’t bullied and get the mental health resources they need, he said, but creating welcoming schools also reduces the risks students face.
“The end result, from a district standpoint, not an individual one, is silence on the issue of issues concerning LGBTQ students in their buildings,” he said.
Borman said he agrees political flags should not be in the classroom, but he doesn’t believe LGBTQ pride flags fall into that category.
“In my opinion, the district should be promoting opportunities for dialogue, not restricting them, and codifying a right to respect students and families from a variety of backgrounds and with a diverse set of beliefs,” he said.
He said the union had sent out a survey on the policy to membership. Only a small percentage responded to the survey. The majority of responses were against the policy, and a portion were unsure.
During last month’s meeting, before the latest revision of the policy, trustees also asked questions about how the policy could impact at-risk students. Trustee Rene Ozuna asked whether allowing teachers to display pride flags in their classroom would mean the district would have to allow other flags.
“How do we make sure that those students know that they’re supported, and what other things do we have out there to get that support for those students?” she asked.
In response to a question about whether the policy prohibited pride flags, Wilson said the policy is “not about excluding one thing.”
“The list came from the teachers on the working group, and while it’s not possible to list everything, it is comprehensive,” he said in a message to the Statesman. “When displaying anything on school district property, it should be content neutral, not a distraction to the educational environment, and conducive to a positive learning environment.”
Superintendent Derek Bub said putting symbols in classrooms can be a “slippery slope.” But the policy would not prevent teachers from connecting with and showing support for their students, he said.
“There’s a lot of at-risk groups that are out there that we don’t have symbols (for) in any classrooms,” he said last month. “But we do count on our teachers, we count on our professionals in the buildings, we count on our school leaders to develop relationships with our kids to find out what their needs are while they’re on our campus, to help support them and make sure that they’re learning at the highest levels in our schools.”
Becca Savransky covers education for the Idaho Statesman in partnership with Report for America. The position is partly funded through community support. Click here to donate.