ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Orange County Public Schools leaders spent hours Tuesday tinkering with proposed rules that will guide teachers through controversial materials and topics and give parents a formal process to challenge classroom or library books.
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The rule changes have been in the works for a year and help the district comply with new state laws. Board members are also using the workshops to discuss updates to other policies that will help modernize their procedures, like giving the public additional time to comment publicly during meetings on controversial subjects that are out of the district’s hands and aren’t on a meeting agenda.
Here are our notes from Tuesday’s workshop:
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A good education includes difficult topics
OCPS board members were almost united in agreement that a quality education includes covering topics some may find difficult, like slavery and discrimination.
Some board members said there had been issues with teachers sharing widely held assumption as fact, such as the motivations of historical figures.
However, the agreement was that teachers should share known facts of a situation, then lead an age-appropriate discussion among students about what the motivations of the person may have been.
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While many teachers are nervous about having their licenses revoked if they use the wrong material in their lessons, board members sought to calm those nerves.
“I’m really concerned about the teachable moments,” Board Member Angie Gallo said, on deep discussions that may not appear in a lesson plan. “That’s what makes learning so much fun, and teaching so much fun.”
Vicki Elaine-Felder, a former teacher, said she often got questions about whether teaching Black history would lead to accusations about indoctrination.
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“Sometimes it’s hard to teach any kind of historical event… without sharing the thought process that went into it,” she said.
The leaders said they’d work on a system that will allow teachers to double-check any material they had concerns about before sharing it with students.
Pornography will have a strict definition
The district will adopt a strict definition of pornography that mirrors the standard adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court and will hopefully avoid embarrassing moments, like the recent ousting of a principal over the use of the Statue of David.
For something to be labeled pornographic, it will have to depict nudity or sexual conduct and be deemed harmful to minors. Board members pushed the district to add emphasis to the conjunction in their written policy.
“When you have some crudely drawn doodles [of nude people] to show kids in a health class, that is not inappropriate,” Karen Castor Dentel said.
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Challenged books will remain on the shelves
In another effort to avoid embarrassments seen in other parts of the state, challenged materials, including books, will remain on the shelves during the district’s review process – with some exceptions.
Currently, a parent has to fill out a multi-page form for each book, which then gets sent to a review committee at the school, then district, and finally the school board itself if the decisions continue to be appealed.
Board members agreed everyone – including themselves – would have to follow that process.
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The new rules would allow the superintendent to immediately order a book to be pulled if necessary, but that decision would be followed by a public review process.
Board members said neither themselves nor parents should petition the superintendent directly to expedite their wish, explaining that book challenges should not be taken lightly.
“I have put in challenges and it goes through the review process just like a parent,” Board Member Alicia Farrant, who has ties to the conservative group Moms for Liberty that has pushed book challenges statewide, said. “Unfortunately things have gone unchecked for so long… there are a lot of books in our schools that need to be looked at.”
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Board members disagreed with Farrant’s effort to include a set timeline for challenges, citing natural disasters or summer vacations, as well as possible abuse of the system by members of the public. Another one of her requests to record who donated which books to the district also appeared to be turned down for logistical reasons.
Public comment on the proposed rules is scheduled for Tuesday, April 4. The proposals are expected to be adopted by the end of the school year.
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