Does this Clovis Unified rule protect students or infringe on teachers’ free speech?

JOHN WALKER/Fresno Bee file

Recent policy updates affecting how teachers do their jobs and what they can have in their workspace received mixed reactions from Clovis Unified educators, but at least one group is threatening legal action if the district doesn’t change course.

Critics of Clovis Unified’s “Display of Personal Items in the Workplace” clause say they’re concerned the policy could be used to hamper free speech; others praised the “clarifications,” saying it ensures teachers don’t unduly influence their students from developing their own political or personal beliefs.

“They’re trying to be so controlling over every poster we put up, every word we say in class and every story we read,” Melissa Ferdinandsen said as she expressed her frustrations about the policy updates.

One group of teachers, the Association of Clovis Educators, is promising legal action because they say the policy infringes on free speech and other rights, the California Teachers Association’s legal department said in a letter to the school district on behalf of ACE.

Clovis Unified was still reviewing the letter Wednesday and did not respond to ACE’s claims.

But district officials said the policy dictating classroom expectations is nothing new.

“The updated language was added to provide clarity and definition to where personal opinion is protected and where neutrality is expected because we’ve witnessed the subject cause confusion in other parts of the state and country,” CUSD spokesperson Kelly Avants said.

Still, to some, concerns linger that the policy is overly broad and could have a chilling effect on important classroom debates if teachers fear parent complaints could land them in hot water more often.

No ‘politics, religion, social movements and/or personal ethics?’

In November, the Clovis Unified school board added the “Display of Personal Items in the Workplace” clause to the Community Participation, Political Activities and Personal Items of Employees Policy.

Employees cannot display personal items reflecting “politics, religion, social movements and/or personal ethics” in plain view. Doing so is considered “district speech” and can be regulated. The clause was also added to the Controversial Issues Policy in late October.

In its Nov. 30 letter to Clovis Unified, CTA officials focused their criticism on the “Display of Personal Items” section, saying employees could “reasonably” interpret the rule as an infringement of their First Amendment free speech rights.

The CTA argued the wording — no “politics, religion, social movements and/or personal ethics” — was overly broad and could “categorically prohibit any kind of speech,” possibly including union affiliations.

“To be clear, our goal is to work collaboratively with the district to resolve these violations,” ACE organizer Kristin Heimerdinger said. “We don’t want to have to pursue legal action in order to preserve our First Amendment rights.”

The CTA document demanded the district revoke the policy by this coming Friday, or ACE would file a lawsuit and/or another unfair labor practice claim.

The school board policy on controversial issues is based on personal values and beliefs, political philosophy, culture, religion, or other influences; although first adopted in 1979, the current definition wasn’t updated as such until November 2020, school board records show.

“(If) properly introduced and conducted, the consideration of such issues can help students learn to identify important issues, explore fully and fairly all sides of an issue, weigh carefully the values and factors involved, and develop techniques for formulating and evaluating positions,” the policy says.

Class instruction must be “balanced, addressing all sides of the issue without bias or prejudice and without promoting any particular point of view.”

When the board updated the policy in late October, it also added clauses that say district staff — who must act on behalf of the district — must “not advocate their personal opinion or viewpoint” in leading or guiding classroom discussions, which is “something we have always stipulated as a public school district,” Superintendent Eimear O’Brien said in a recent email to The Bee’s Education Lab.

’Where it becomes troubling’

Trustee Steven Fogg said he hadn’t heard any complaints about the new policy revisions.

The changes ensure an employee in a position of authority doesn’t influence students as they develop their own viewpoints, he said.

“Students should be allowed to discover and develop their own viewpoints and understanding without public display of the personal items that may express biases, opinion, social or political activity by those who may be in a position of authority or influence,” he said.

Clovis Unified teachers aren’t unionized, so there are three teacher representative groups working as the voice of teachers, especially those who may not reach out to the school board.

As a result, different factions of educators have been sharing their concerns or providing feedback with the three groups: ACE, Independent Clovis Unified Educators and Faculty Senate, the district’s teacher group.

“While they don’t say we can’t talk about a controversial issue, the requirements are ones that no teacher can satisfy on the fly, and that’s where it becomes troubling,” Heimerdinger said on behalf of ACE.

Students know about current events and controversy in the nation, and they turn to their teachers for an explanation or understanding, she said.

“I guess what we have to now say is, ‘I’m not prepared to discuss this and give you the arguments for both sides,” she said. “I don’t think that’s where most teachers want to be. Most teachers want to respond to that natural curiosity of students, give them information and answer their questions without expressing their opinion.”

It’s simply unrealistic to expect teachers to know about every opposing argument for every issue, she said.

“And I think that’s doing a huge disservice to our young population who are just looking for information.”

However, ICUE’s leadership team said they haven’t heard any complaints.

Bill Buettner, Faculty Senate’s vice president, acknowledged that there’s always been somewhat of an unwritten guideline not to display religious or political items to the classroom even though they are acceptable in the teacher’s personal space, just as the school district said.

He and others felt that the policy updates provided a clarification for teachers.

“Those who we heard from were appreciative and in agreement that the classroom should be a neutral space of learning,” he said about teacher sentiments shared with the Faculty Senate.

“A lot of teachers in Clovis Unified respect the diversity of all of our students who we serve and that parents have that first say in their children’s belief system. Our job is to teach; we can hold our own values and belief systems, but we do our best to keep those private and out of the educational process – that’s my understanding of most, if not all, of our teachers moving forward.”

The diversity of students is what some fear will be threatened by the policy implementation. Many Clovis Unified staff display items that foster a safe, welcoming space for all students, such as those in the LGBTQ+ community.

“One could argue that being an ally for the LGBTQ population and advertising yourself as a safe space is a controversial issue,” Ferdinandsen said. “That is counterintuitive to what we are trying to do in education, which is to make sure that all students feel welcome in our classrooms and feel safe to come to school to learn.”

Being an ally or supporting minority groups like Black students has been deemed political in Clovis before. In 2016 a substitute teacher wore a Black Lives Matter pin, symbolic of a peaceful request to end violence and a statement that Black lives matter, too. The school district removed David Roberts from Clovis West’s list of eligible substitutes the next day.

“Clovis Unified claims you have to be neutral, but they’re not neutral,” Roberts said at the time. “There’s a set of beliefs you’re expected to have there.”

Employees say they were cut out of decision-making process

Though the policy was meant to provide clarity, some teachers said they were frustrated by a lack of communication around the change.

The school board changed the policy without consulting anyone in a classroom who has to live those policies, Ferdinandsen said.

“If there are going to be changes made to teaching conditions or expectations of teachers, educators should be included in that decision-making process,” she said. “ They shouldn’t be able to make those decisions without getting input from the people it affects and from the experts in the classroom.”

When the district creates or makes significant changes, the district conducts a lengthy process with meetings for multiple staff groups and the community as well as other outreach, Avants said.

Such action was not taken because the policy updates “do not substantively change an existing practice,” Avants said.

However, as part of the policy revision process, the updates were discussed at different meetings where leaders from employee groups were invited to attend prior to the revisions going to the board for approval.

Board materials reflecting the updates were also made public before the board meetings.

The board also studied the California School Board Association model policy and policies in other districts, closely aligning the language with theirs, including the statement to “not advocate their personal opinion or viewpoint” when discussing controversial issues, Board President Tiffany Stoker Madsen said.

The “clarifying language” distinguishes where personal opinion is protected and where neutrality is expected so CUSD can continue to educate students in a neutral environment, Stoker Madsen said.

The Controversial Issue Policy presents “non-biased instruction within a non-biased learning environment,” she said, and the policy on personal items “maintains a neutral workspace that doesn’t display items that could be perceived as advocating for political, religious or other social agendas.”

And employees shouldn’t expect any additional monitoring than what already occurs, Avants said. If personal items are seen outside of one’s personal space, there’d be an informal or formal dialogue and action between employees and supervisors.

“Our policies are in place so employees, students, parents and school leaders have a common understanding of the purpose of our facilities, the expectations for neutrality in the delivery of instruction and in our workspaces as well as the concept of personal space and what protections extend to that space,” Avants said.

Meanwhile, Ferdinandsen and some of her colleagues say it only adds more stress to an already difficult job.

“And I just want to teach my kids.”

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