Douglas County policy seeks to ensure teacher political neutrality in classroom

Kurt Hildebrand / Record Courier
George Whittell High School.
Bill Rozak/Tahoe Daily Tribune

While not banning any mention of a certain theory in the classroom per se, a formal policy approved by trustees is designed to ensure teachers don’t take a political position.

“We take measures every year to remind employees that they have to remain neutral in the classroom,” Superintendent Keith Lewis told trustees. “They have to acknowledge that expectation. In our current climate it’s important to have a policy that we refer back to.”

Lewis explained that the policy doesn’t prohibit talking about politics or current events in the classroom, it just requires the teacher to take a neutral position.

“It also doesn’t mean that political figures aren’t invited into our classrooms to present,” he said. “But we should provide that opportunity both sides of issues. The teacher is not breaking policy if one side choses not to attend. This does not prohibit a parent’s organization or a student club or civics club from doing a candidates’ forum, but all candidates have to be invited.”

The policy was introduced at the Aug. 11 school board meeting with a unanimous vote. A second reading will take place in September. The district’s second readings are typically done with the consent calendar, but it might be moved to the regular agenda for further discussion.

Lewis said critical race theory is not being taught as part of the district’s curriculum, but that the policy allows a teacher to answer a question posed by a student.

“A government or history teacher might get a question from a kid and we don’t want the teacher to say “CRT? We can’t talk about that.”

Lewis said the policy would address community concerns raised last year that the schools shouldn’t be presenting social and political theories as fact, Lewis said.

“We’re in the business of education,” Trustee Linda Gilkerson said. “If students ask something and we don’t answer, they’re going to go find it somewhere else.”

School employees may use personal devices and their own email to conduct political business during their 30-minute duty free lunch period under the contract the district has with its associations.

Students would still be able to campaign for student body office.

More than 100 people participated in town halls last fall when the theory drew attention nationwide.

The school board voted 7-0 to lay the issue to rest at a Nov. 9, 2021, meeting, and again on Nov. 22. The debate over that and social emotional learning prompted three residents opposing the district’s action to file for school board.

David Burns, Susan Jansen and Katherine Dickerson are all seeking school board seats. Resident Roberta Butterfield is running against Burns, winning the primary vote, but not by a sufficient margin to win the seat. She, and trustees Robbe Lehmann and Heather Jackson are all on the ballot in November.

Burns and Jansen spoke during public comment at the Aug. 9 meeting but may not have stayed until the new policy was presented. No members of the public weighed in on the first reading.

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