BAR HARBOR — Preparing schools for what many expect to be an especially heated and divisive run-up to the 2020 presidential election is a high priority for the policy committee of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System board.
Committee members last Thursday, April 25, discussed the possible need for specific policies or guidelines regarding the discussion of politics and expression of political opinions in the schools.
“We definitely need to have something in place by the next election,” said Robin Sue Tapley.
Heidi Lawson said, “I can see us having something in place by fall.”
Superintendent Marc Gousse told the committee, “The goal for us is to support a very healthy dialogue for our students and to be able to have discussions of a political nature, being very conscious of the fact that our role as educators is to facilitate but not indoctrinate.”
Three elementary school principals joined the policy committee for its discussion of politics in the schools.
“For me, it’s important whenever you introduce any kind of controversial subject that you present it in an unbiased way,” Conners Emerson School Principal Barb Neilly said. “I believe you present information neutrally and allow kids and families to make their decisions based on their belief systems.”
Pemetic Elementary School Principal Rhonda Fortin and Trenton Elementary School Principal Mike Zboray agreed. Zboray said the lead-up to the 2018 mid-term elections was “really hard and emotions were high” at his school.
“Managing those emotions and making sure those weren’t expressed [by teachers] in the classroom … I think is really important,” he said.
Seven policy committee members attended last Thursday’s meeting in person. Tammy Tripler of Swan’s Island joined by phone.
She said the last presidential election generated a troubling amount of discord among students at Swan’s Island School.
“There was lots of intimidation going on,” she said. “When it was in the presence of staff, they would squelch it. But on the bus and the playground, there were children being intimidated if they said their family was voting a certain way.
“I was really shocked to see it happening at such a young level.”
She said children should be able to feel safe at school, and they need to understand that everyone has a right to their own opinions and political views.
“We need to start these lessons with the teachers and the kids really early, about how we treat others with respect,” she said. “By high school it’s too late.”
Several members of the policy committee asked about the current ground rules regarding the expression of political views in school.
“Can a student wear a hat with a political view?” asked Teresa King-LeClair.
“It’s their right to do that,” Gousse said.
Heidi Lawson asked, “So, no student should ever be disciplined for what they might believe in, what they might wear, what they might have on their personal vehicle?”
The answer, basically, is “up to a point,” according to Gousse.
“The question is, does it disrupt the educational process for [other students]?” he said. “That’s the line of demarcation.”
Julie Keblinsky, dean of curriculum at Mount Desert Island High School, said, “If something is seen as inciting, it can be detracting from the learning process. If it’s inciting enough that kids aren’t learning, that’s your litmus test.”
The guidelines are different for teachers and staff when it comes to expressing opinions on politics or controversial issues, Gousse said.
“They should be very careful in expressing viewpoints,” he said. “They should be facilitating conversation. Somebody should be able to walk into the classroom and not know what your position is.”
King-LeClair agreed, saying, “In a good academic setting, all positions can be presented with dignity and respect without making anyone feel lacking or mistreated or disrespected. I think that makes a good educator.”
The school system board has dozens of policies governing everything from purchasing to extra-curricular activities. But none of the existing policies specifically address political activity or the expression of political views by students, teachers or staff.
Gousse provided policy committee members with links to policies that have been adopted by two other school districts in Maine. Yarmouth has a policy on Staff Participation in Political Activities. Both Yarmouth and Westbrook, where Gousse previously served as superintendent, have policies titled Teaching About Controversial/Sensitive Issues.
Members of the MDI Regional School System’s policy committee agreed that teachers and students should be included in subsequent discussions of what policies or guidelines, if any, should be put in place regarding those issues.
“I would not want to say, ‘Let’s push this through; let’s have a vote,’ and then have the teachers say, ‘What’s this all about?’” Gousse said. “That would be a disaster.
“Ultimately, whether the board decides to adopt a policy or not, I think we need to do some education with our kids, our staff and our community about how to navigate this,” he said.