BAR HARBOR — A policy that provides guidance for teachers in addressing sensitive or controversial topics in the classroom was adopted by a unanimous vote of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System board Tuesday night.
Proposed by Superintendent Marc Gousse and endorsed by the school board’s policy committee, it is a slightly revised version of a policy developed by the Maine School Management Association (MSMA).
“It is not our intention to limit discussions,” Gousse said at the policy committee’s meeting last month. “It is to support those discussions in a way that’s going to be healthy for students and teachers.”
Given the current political climate, Gousse said, “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when it was more critical for our young people to be exposed to information so they can make informed decisions.”
The introduction to the MSMA’s policy on Teaching Controversial Issues states that educators “have long been aware that well-developed critical thinking skills are essential to understanding and addressing difficult and sometimes emotional and contentious issues.”
To cultivate those skills, teachers need to help students “learn how to assess information and discern fact from fiction, to make and defend their own opinions and to engage in respectful expression and debate,” according to the MSMA.
The new school system policy states that students have the right “to form and express opinions on controversial issues without jeopardizing relations with the teacher or the school” and the right to study “under competent instruction in an atmosphere free from bias and prejudice.”
The policy goes on to state that a teacher “has the right to identify and express his/her own point of view in the classroom as long as he/she indicates clearly that it is his/her own.”
Guest speaker policy
The school system board on Tuesday also adopted a policy titled Guest Speakers in Schools. It states that principals and teachers are encouraged to invite guest speakers who can provide “a learning experience appropriate to the grade level of students.”
“Because guest speakers may have particular viewpoints and opinions, it is important that teachers have a clear understanding of the speaker’s purpose, prepare students for the experience in advance and provide appropriate follow-up activities,” the policy states.
“Teachers should strive to provide a balance of viewpoints and opinions through discussion or other activities that allow for the presentation of opposing views. This may include, when practicable, the invitation of speakers with different points of view.”
Employees in politics
A policy titled Staff Participation in Political Activities also was adopted by the school system board. It states that school employees have the right to discuss political and other “issues of the day” in public venues, actively participate in a political party, run for public office and campaign in the community for candidates and in support of political issues.
The policy goes on to say that school employees may not engage in political activities “while carrying out their work responsibilities during the school day, while performing work for the school outside of the school day on school premises or while performing work for the school at any other location.”
The policy also states: “When engaging in conversations with students outside of classes or school activities, employees should be mindful of the potential effect of their position, authority and influence when stating personal opinions in regard to candidates and political issues.”