Teachers walk fine line with with controversial subjects



BAR HARBOR — Climate scientists say the evidence is clear: The earth is warming and human activity is a major cause.

But not everyone believes that.

So, how do teachers go about teaching climate science and other controversial or politically charged subjects? Or should they just avoid them altogether?

Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) officials are looking at creating a policy regarding the teaching of subjects that some parents or students don’t think should be taught.

Several members of the MDRISS board’s policy committee, along with two principals, a teacher and Superintendent Marc Gousse, talked about the need for such a policy at a meeting last Thursday.

“One concern that I have is that a lot of science is being politicized, and things that should not be political issues are being treated as if they are,” said Dawn Burgess, a former math teacher at MDI High School who this year is teaching gifted and talented students there. She has a doctorate in geophysics from Stanford.

“I want to make sure that we make it clear that analysis of scientific fact and data and drawing real, solid conclusions from that data is not a political act.”

Competing views on climate change is front and center these days, but it isn’t the only scientific or historical fact that parents or students sometimes dispute. Others include evolution and the Holocaust.

“We’ve had several Holocaust deniers,” MDI High Principal Matt Haney said.

Gousse and the school system’s policy committee began talking several months ago about the possible need for a policy to guide teachers in approaching potentially controversial topics.

“But that was at the end of the [school] year, and I wasn’t comfortable advancing anything without at least teacher input,” Gousse said at last Thursday’s meeting.

He said he plans to talk with the presidents of the teachers’ associations in each of the MDRISS schools before recommending any specific policy.

“It’s really important that teachers and staff know we’re not trying to silence anybody,” he said. “In fact, we want to support and facilitate discussions for students.”

Gousse said he planned to bring a draft policy to the policy committee in September. If the committee approves, it likely would go to the full school system board for consideration in October.

There are basically two categories of instruction and classroom discussion that can be controversial. In one category are teachings based on what are widely accepted as scientific or historical fact, such as climate change, evolution and the Holocaust.

Then there are topics that are open to interpretation and about which people may reasonably disagree. That category might include the Second Amendment and to what extent, if at all, the possession of firearms should be restricted.

The school system board has a policy titled “Accommodation of Sincere Beliefs in Required Instruction.” It acknowledges that some students may at times be exposed to ideas or materials that they or their parents don’t agree with.

“Students and their parents cannot be required to adopt ideas with which they disagree, but such disagreement alone is not a sufficient basis to exempt a student from the prescribed curriculum,” the policy states.

“The board recognizes, however, that there could be topics in the curriculum which may be objectionable to individual students based on their particular, sincerely held religious, moral or philosophical beliefs. Alteration of instruction which infringes on such beliefs may be requested …”

Such requests must be made in writing to the school principal, who will use a set of criteria in deciding whether to grant the request. If the principal denies the request, the parent may appeal to the superintendent, whose decision is final.

If an exemption from a portion of the curriculum is granted, “The staff will make reasonable efforts … to accommodate alternative instruction for the student,” the policy states.

Gousse told the policy committee, “This is not a license [for students] to opt out of the instruction if you don’t agree with something. If that’s the case, then the conversation really needs to be had as to whether this is the best place for you.”

Haney said, “There’s a difference between an individual student opting out and that student saying that what you’re teaching, [such as] climate science, is political indoctrination and you can’t teach it to anybody. I think that’s the biggest fear [of educators].”

As for teaching established facts, Gousse said, “We want to make sure that teachers have a solid basis to be able to [do that].”

But he suggested that teachers need to be especially careful and evenhanded when addressing topics that are not a matter of settled science or documented history. The debate over the Second Amendment is an example.

“Those discussions should be occurring in schools, in my opinion,” he said. “But we have to walk that line between facilitation and indoctrination. In a perfect world, a student would never know the position that I [as a teacher] am taking. I’m going to be a moderator; I’m going to be neutral.

“I want to encourage staff and teachers to have these conversations [with students],” he continued. “But it’s how we have them. We have some staff who are asking for some guidance.”

Gousse provided links to policies that have been adopted in other school districts in Maine that he said the policy committee might want to consider.

One of those policies, titled “Teaching About Controversial/Sensitive Issues,” has been adopted by the school boards in both Westbrook and Yarmouth. It states that teachers should emphasize “keeping an open mind, basing one’s judgment on known facts, looking closely at facts to evaluate them in terms of the subject under discussion, and being ready to change one’s opinion should new facts come into light.”

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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