Saline Schools Try to Balance Inclusive Curriculum with Parents' Rights


You know you’re in for a difficult policy discussion when even the policy’s title is a sore spot.

The Saline Board of Education wants to revise the district’s “controversial issues” policy. The topic dominated last Tuesday’s board meeting.

At the heart of the matter is how the district should handle it when, for example, a Christian parent, citing religious or moral objections, doesn’t want their children to participate in the reading of LGBTQ-themed books as part of a classroom assignment. On the other side, LGBTQ parents and their allies clearly don’t want to see their friends and family treated like second-class citizens in school curriculum and some don’t think parents should be able to opt their kids out of lessons.

It’s not clear what exactly is changing in the revised policy. But it’s clear conservatives feel it’s going too far and some liberals feel it’s not going far enough. There’s also some inner-board tension about how this policy escaped committee and ended up on the Board of Education’s table before some policy makers wanted it there.

The original policy was adopted in 2018 when the district teachers held classroom readings of “I am Jazz,” a children’s book about a “reality television star” who transitioned from male to female at the age of five. The policy, revised in 2019, provides a framework for teaching controversial subjects and using instructional materials in school.

The policy states that controversial subjects can be taught as long the subject matter is tied to instructional goals, encourages open-mindedness, and does not attempt to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view. The policy allowed parents the ability to opt out of controversial subjects.

A revised policy will allow parents to fill out district opt-out forms. Those forms would be considered by an educational team who would then provide alternate assignments.

The board’s policy committee is made up of chair Jenny Miller, Susan Estep and Lauren Gold Miller said when she was named chair, the policy committee decided it was time to change the policy.

Miller introduced the discussion at Tuesday's meeting, although the discussion had already started in public comment. Miller explained that parents uncomfortable with a specific lesson wanted could fill out an opt-out form explaining why they are opting out of a lesson. The teacher and education team would then choose an alternate assignment.

She said the new policy would provide consistency throughout the district. While some public comment and even board member comment expressed concern about the burden on educators, Miller said a new policy could help teachers.

“Currently, this is been handled on a case-by-case basis and there are different things happening in each building, which is creating discrepancy and inconsistency,” Miller said. “So a policy such as this could help align and create consistency from one building to the next.”

Miller explained why it was time to bring the policy to the board. She said the public has had ample opportunity to examine the policy and provide feedback. The policy has also been vetted by school district lawyers.

She said it was important to address the issues in a timely manner.

“We have had examples shared with us that have presented harm to students especially because of the inconsistencies and we have also heard about teachers who have felt they have had to make decisions individually instead of with the support of the teaching and learning team,” Miller said.

Miller said these decisions are often made before the start of a school year or before the start of a trimester.

We want to have this support in place for students, families and teachers this fall so that we don't have some of the things and inconsistencies that have happened in the past. I mean no judgment on what has happened in the past. I think that people were doing the best with what they had and with the best of intentions,” Miller said

Board President Michael McVey said he believed the policy made things clearer.

“I think the new policy does have a number of materials substantially clearer,” he said.

Trustee Gold said she thought the policy did a good job adhering to things asked for in the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Advisory Committee’s report to the board - but she said there was one thing lacking.

“There is a piece that I would like to see made more explicit which is that one parent’s opt-out cannot interfere with the education of another parent's child,” Gold said.

She listed a few specific requests. The opt-out request must not impact the education of other students. Books, posters, choice boards and other instructional materials must not be removed from the class or school as a result of a parent’s opt-out request.

“I do not want to see materials relegated to second-class status,” Gold said.

Miller said the district’s lawyers have made it clear that this policy was strictly about opting out of some instructional materials on a case-by-case basis, and that it does not allow for the removal of posters, flags or library items.

It also does not allow for a parent to opt their child out of placement in a classroom with a teacher of an identity that is not preferred, Miller said. Miller said the board could consider adding that language.

Gold said she felt it was important for the community to hear that because there was “alarm” that one parent’s opt-out might impact their child’s classroom.

“I think it’s important enough to merit specific inclusion in the policy,” Gold said.

Laatsch provided some background on how the policy currently works. Not long ago, he said, a parent asked the district to opt a child out of all of a specific subject matter. The teacher and learning team told the parent they don’t opt out that way - that they need more narrowly defined opt-out requests. They met with the family, determined the specific request and determined alternative activities.

“That worked well for both parties,” Laatsch said.

He said it’s not the district’s intention to say that a parent can’t opt out of something with the new policy, but educators need to better understand the request.

Laatsch said the new policy would provide a better framework for understanding requests and meeting needs, while offering consistency that can help teachers and parents.

Trustee Estep asked what fielding these requests would look like for the teacher. Laatsch said the teacher would take the request, and contact Kara Davis, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning, to help with the specifics and logistics.

“We think by having more structure around the process, it will be more helpful for our teaching staff,” Laatsch said.

Laatsch said it was important to make the curriculum known to parents.

“The intention is to work with our teaching staff to make sure the parents are aware of what is being taught to make sure that we aren't apologizing for the need to diversify the curriculum more and make sure that those materials are not taken out of the classroom but then to recognize that some parents may not want their kids involved in all of those activities and that we work directly with them to make sure that we can operationalize that,” Laatsch said.

The general policy doesn’t say much. The board’s most liberal voice, Estep, and most conservative voice, Tim Austin, on the board both pointed to the administrative guidelines that effectively govern how the policy is implemented.

“The administrative guidelines are the muscle behind this policy,” Austin said.

With as much interest as the public has in the issue, Austin asked if it was possible to put the guidelines in front of the public.

“I think the community should be able to see the administrative guidelines. The administrative guidelines kind of scare me on this because they can change at any time and we don’t see it from a board level,” Austin said.

Laatsch said the guidelines are generally not for public consumption. He said he thought the guidelines anticipated what teachers and educational teams will have to deal with.

“Administrative guidelines follow policy. This was just an attempt to get organized around what we believe it should look like,” Laatsch said.

Austin agreed but said the guidelines were much more in-depth than the policy. He said one of the guidelines gives parents two weeks to opt out of a lesson.

Laatch said that’s what Kara Davis and the education team will be working to get educational materials in front of parents in a timely fashion. At the high school level, it might be a bit more specific.

Austin said that if parents couldn’t “blanket opt-out” of topics, they would need more time to review educational materials.

Austin asked if the staff and union had been involved in the discussions.

Laatsch said the teaching and learning team has started engaging with teachers and if the policy is adopted, the district will need to work with teachers. However, he said, the district is already dealing with parents on these issues.

“People believe this is so overwhelming, but I don’t think it is. We’ve been operationalizing this for years,” Laatsch said. 

And then Laatsch answered the real question.

“So why are we changing this now? Because we don’t like the name controversial issues, because we don’t want our kids to be called controversial and that we need more succinct guidelines,” Laatsch said.

Austin said he believed the district will be able to handle the load - but he said the district should show the full scope of the change to parents.

Laatsch said would be fine with sharing the administrative guidelines with the public.

McVey said he’d be OK with sharing the guidelines as long the board understands it wasn’t controlling or approving the guidelines.

“We want to make sure the guidelines are hooked to the policy and that’s about as far as our job goes,” McVey said.

Trustee Brad Gerbe noted that guidelines live and modify over time, based on real-world factors.

Trustee Gold asked Laatsch about what parents could opt out of. Could a parent opt their child out of an evolution lesson, for example? Laatsch said the district was not enumerating all of the topics that might be eligible.

Gold said teachers, students and parents can’t always know what content might come before them. Students bring their own experiences into a classroom.

“How can you control and predict the kind of spontaneous critical thinking discussions that our students are having in the year 2023? Is that something that parents are expecting of our educators? Because I don't see how it's feasible. So I don't know how we can reassure parents that, yes, we'll be able to accommodate that request and still have vigorous classrooms,” Gold said.

Clearly, Trustee Estep was not pleased that Trustee Miller, brought the policy to the board before the rest of the policy committee was ready. Miller is chair of the committee, which also also includes Estep and Gold.

“Are we actually going to work together and collaborate or is this just choose anytime to take whatever is here and then use I vs. we as a committee,” Estep said.

Miller defended the decision to bring it to the board.

“The board operating procedure says that at any time any board member can call for an agenda item. It also states that the policy chair can notify the president when they would like to bring something to the agenda. It doesn't say anything about having a consensus or having a vote on it and I have already stated previously the reasons for bringing it to the table,” Miller said.

For Gold, it was clear she wanted to see more language-protecting books and posters in the classroom.

Miller dismissed the notion that the policy-making was less than collaborative, noting that Estep helped her craft much of the policy.

Estep clearly indicated she was troubled that the board might adopt a policy that allows parents to opt kids out of a lesson because there are LGBTQ characters.

She said opting out of a lesson because of a specific topic was one thing.

“That makes more sense than literally just saying ‘I'm biased against and I do not believe in LGBTQ+ people,’” Estep said. “We exist. Period.”

Despite the board tension, it was clear other members of the board felt they had a positive discussion. McVey said he felt the board was very close to having a new policy.

Laatsch reiterated that the district is committed to forging ahead with diversity and inclusion while protecting the rights of parents.

“The community has asked us to respond and be more culturally responsive with instruction with equity and inclusion we're delivering that. And then, at the same time, we hear a parent saying, ‘Hey, don't take away our rights when we object’ to some element of the curriculum. We won't and we aren't,” Laatsch said. “But at some point, allow us to continue to do the work.”

There were few surprises in public comment.

“The district is attempting to challenge my legal rights as a parent and assume they have higher authority than parents of minor children on how they wish to influence my child on subjective and controversial topics,” said one father unhappy to learn the district could reject his decision to a opt his child from a topic. “The district states that it is inclusive yet. You are focusing on pushing and curriculum that place favors solely to the loudest voices in the room.”

He said Saline would continue to lose students to private schools if it continued to push the agendas on families.

One parent was concerned about obstruction when trying to review the curriculum.

District parent Rae-Lynn Davis said she believes the existing policy gave parents the right to remove their children from lessons they deemed inappropriate, as she did with her child during the I Am Jazz reading. Davis asked if there was any way to guarantee that parents would have the final say. She said he’s also used to the current policy to opt out of a last-minute homework assignment and worried the new rules would make that impossible.

Amy Tesolin said she was proud of the progress in the district.

“I'm happy that Superintendent Laatsch and SAS leadership are directing and encouraging all teachers to ensure that in every classroom students have the opportunity to learn about LGBTQ less people,” she said.

She said the district shouldn’t spend taxpayer dollars requiring teachers to alter the curriculum for some students to placate some parents.

“Instead, let's follow the district's legal purpose to educate and support all students equally,” Tesolin said.

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Your bias shows clearly in your writing. It also took you a week to even post about this issue. Mlive, for all they are not the best, beat you to it and even had a more balance article. 

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