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Column: How the ‘divisive concepts’ battle will unfold

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 7/17/2021 10:20:06 PM
Modified: 7/17/2021 10:20:06 PM

Despite the protests of advocates of public education and free speech, New Hampshire’s “divisive concepts” legislation will go into effect this fall. To implement the law, Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut will issue a technical advisory for administrators and school boards, an advisory that he states “will aim to delineate exactly how the new teaching prohibitions will apply in the classroom.”

I do not believe it is possible to develop an exact delineation of “divisive concepts.” Instead, the definition of “divisive concepts” will emerge from a succession of appeals to administrators and school boards by parents and “concerned citizens” who are uncomfortable with some element of a school’s curriculum or operations.

Three examples illustrate how I believe the definition of “divisive concepts” will emerge, examples that show how this incremental process will affect school boards, school administrators and especially classroom teachers.

Relentless records requests

A Fox News report by Joshua Nelson in early June offers a preview of what lies ahead for school boards in New Hampshire. The report described Rhode Island parent Nicole Solas’ appearance on Fox and Friends during which she recounted her efforts to find evidence that her kindergarten-age child was being exposed to “anything with gender theory or anti-racism.”

She called the principal who told her that they refrained “from using gendered terminology in general terms of anti-racism.” She also learned that kids in kindergarten were asked “what could have been done differently at Thanksgiving?” which struck her “as a way to shame children for their American heritage.”

Solas then sought to see the curriculum for herself. To do so, she had to submit a public records request. Upon receiving some information, Solas said she “did not see any evidence of gender theory or anti-racism” but knew that it was being taught to students. She told the Fox and Friends hosts that she was continuing to use the records request system to seek answers to more of her questions, but the school district was scheduled to meet about possible legal action over her request.

This kind of pushback from an elected board seems indefensible, but what Fox News didn’t report was that Solas had filed 160 public information requests that cost the district more than $10,000 to retrieve and print.

Given the likelihood that there are parents who, like Solas, are willing to spend hours poring over documents to “prove” schools or teachers are teaching “gender theory” or anti-racism, New Hampshire school boards might want to consider where to draw a line in responding to information requests. Should they provide printed curriculum documents for every parent for every subject? Should an individual teacher’s lesson plans be subject to public scrutiny if a parent claims the plan includes “divisive” content?

And how much time and energy must a school board exert in an effort to reach an understanding with a parent who “did not see any evidence of gender theory or anti-racism” but knew it was being taught?

Book banning

A personal experience I had more than 20 years ago in Wappingers, N.Y., illustrates how the assignment of a controversial book can impact administrators.

A lone parent in the school district was upset with a book a high school teacher assigned in her daughter’s class, Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya. During the citizen participation portion of a school board’s meeting, the parent read a page from the book that she found particularly disgusting, a page that was full of profanity and sexual innuendos which, when taken out of context, seemed needlessly vulgar.

After her reading, she demanded that the board immediately take this book off the reading list and out of the library.

Fortunately, the board chair was aware that the school district had a policy for the review of controversial materials, a policy that required me, as the superintendent, to be the final arbiter. After reading Bless Me Ultima, I concluded that the “vulgar” pages in question were essential to the story and, on balance, not offensive. The parent appealed my decision to the state board, which upheld my finding based on procedural grounds.

However, once one book was called into question, two other appeals followed, one of which came from a parent who believed the Harry Potter books to be satanic. And once one book was called into question, principals and teachers began to review all of the books they assigned.

I daresay every school district in New Hampshire is now open to similar appeals since many “controversial” books could be classified as “divisive.”

And I daresay superintendents, administrators and teachers might find themselves examining their syllabi to avoid teaching “divisive concepts.”

Targeting teachers

Teachers, though, are affected most by the legislation. A recent New York Times article described the experience of Justine Ang Fonte, a health and wellness teacher at Dalton School. Fonte, described in the Times headline as a “sex educator,” accepted an offer this past May to teach two Zoom sessions on “pornography literacy and consent” to 120 juniors and seniors at a Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on the Upper West Side. Following the class, two anonymous parents complained about the content of the lessons.

Then, the Times reported: “About a week later, she woke up to find herself featured in The New York Post: ‘Students and parents reel after class on “porn literacy,” ’ said the headline. That story was followed by another soon after: ‘Dalton parents enraged over “masturbation” videos for first graders.’ The articles included screen shots from Ms. Fonte’s lessons, a possibility in the Zoom-classroom world.

“Versions of the articles appeared in The Sun, The Daily Mail and on Fox News.”

Neither the school that invited her to offer the course nor Dalton, the school where she worked, came to her defense. She subsequently found herself in the crosshairs of anti-sex education advocates and, to make matters worse, her lessons on sexuality pushed the buttons of groups that were offended by lessons on “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

This led to a series of drive-by protests by trucks plastered with signs protesting “Woke Schools,” petitions claiming that employees of Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School were laying the “groundwork” for “a race-focused ideology,” violent threats in her email inbox, and harassment on social media.

The Times article provided evidence that the lessons Fonte offered were age-appropriate, supported by the medical and mental health communities, and in most states, including New York, supported by curriculum standards.

In New Hampshire, where teaching “divisive concepts” now presents the threat of professional sanction or civil action, I cannot help but wonder how the inherently controversial topics included in a health curriculum will be covered. Will local school boards stand behind teachers who offer lessons on gender equity? Gender identity?

Will the state stand behind teachers who teach about dating violence and date rape, topics that are currently mandated in the curriculum? Presumably, Edelblut’s technical advisory will shed some light on this.

I am certain that superintendents, school board members and teachers across the nation will be watching to see how their counterparts in New Hampshire weather the inevitable controversies that will emerge in the coming months — controversies that the right-wing press will be only too happy to amplify in its effort to undercut “government schools,” which will divert attention away from important topics like equitable funding, and which will ultimately define what constitutes a “divisive topic.”

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.




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