Teachers, Parents Trade Barbs Over Political Speech, Academic Freedom

The agenda for a typically busy Canby School Board meeting was scrapped Thursday night, as more than 70 teachers, parents and community members asked to make their voices heard over concerns about political speech in classrooms and teachers’ academic freedom.

For two and a half hours, teacher after teacher after teacher — both active and retired — availed themselves of the allotted two minutes to air concerns over what they saw as blatant overreach on the part of several school board members.

“As teachers, we strive to help students become critical thinkers, processing information while looking for bias, all while being conscious of the dissemination of information and validity of sources,” said Troy Soles, a parent, graduate (CHS Class of 1990), high school teacher and coach.

“I, therefore, take issue with any efforts of our school board members aimed at second-guessing or armchair quarterbacking our work through micromanagement or that make an already challenging job more difficult.”

Meanwhile, a smaller but not-insignificant number of parents and community members also weighed in, at times referring to the work of public school educators as little more than indoctrination and even alleging conspiracies to “brainwash” impressionable young minds to a liberal worldview.

“Our district over the last couple of years has become something I am not proud of,” said Candi Millar, a lifetime resident, former member of the Ninety-One School Board (before it merged with Canby) and a grandmother of four current Canby School District students. “My grandchildren are not comfortable in some situations with the insinuations the classroom conversations have taken.

“Politics, sexual persuasion, religion, and firearm discussions do not belong in the classroom. Only in the privacy of our own homes should these type of issues be discussed.”

Pursuant to board rules, public comments had to be submitted in advance of the virtual meeting. About fifteen opted to read their letters into the record. The remaining 60 or so were read alternatingly by Chair Angi Dilks and Vice Chair Sara Magenheimer.

Much of the discussion centered on board members Stefani Carlson, Dawn Depner and Tom Scott, who had aired concerns at the previous meeting, Oct. 1, about Canby School District teachers voicing overly political speech with students in the virtual learning environment since classes resumed last month.

They did not discuss specific lessons or teachers — pursuant to district policy — but a public records request by The Canby Current later yielded only one example that raised concerns: a single slide from a seventh-grade introduction to art lesson at Ninety-One School.

Several commenters were of the mind that the image had been deliberately taken out of context in an attempt to inflame divisions and make educators look bad.

“Our teachers are working so hard right now,” said Kathleen Hagans Jeskey, a former Canby teacher of 20 years. “I thank God every day that I retired when I did because my heart is breaking for what teachers and their own children, and really all our kids and families, are going through.

“The last thing any of us needed was the little poisoned pill that was dropped into our community at the last school board meeting.”

The slide was a photograph depicting a Black child in a school uniform, facing a metal door. The photo also contained the words, “I worry about people in my family getting shot. My cousin got shot and died. I don’t think anybody should carry a gun… Even the cops. Then nobody would get shot.”

Though it may appear to be a run-of-the-mill internet meme, the photo is actually part of a display by photographer Judy Gelles, who interviewed hundreds of fourth-graders around the world to chronicle their living situations, hopes and fears.

Students in Canby were not asked to analyze or respond to the content of the image, per se. They were simply asked whether or not the photo was art — along with some-35 others encompassing a wide variety of subjects and mediums.

But a screenshot of the image — divorced from its original context and shared on social media, including by Depner herself in at least one public Facebook group — alarmed Canby parents and district taxpayers.

“This goes against our 2nd amendment rights and what we teach our children at home,” wrote Lori Boatright. “I am a member of the gun club and this really makes me HOT that this is being pushed. Both my grandkids shoot trap for the High School and you are allowing this to be pushed right under our noses?”

At the end of the art lesson in question, the teacher states that all of the images are art and that art is, in fact, subjective. The exact nature and definition of art ultimately lie with the artists and viewers themselves; every person has the freedom to hold their own definition of art and should respect those who may come to other conclusions.

“Ironically, the image is proving itself to be art by eliciting a strong reaction and discourse,” one parent, Christopher Calkins, said. “Your behavior demonstrates a complete lack of intellectual curiosity and the ease with which you want to censor and restrict first amendment rights and academic freedom is unbecoming of school board members.”

Other parents and community members praised Depner, Carlson and Scott for listening to their concerns and doggedly pursuing information.

“It is no secret that our classrooms have become a center for the promotion of certain political ideologies,” said Dean Mason. “It is also no secret that there are concentrated efforts to keep parents in the dark about exactly what is being promoted by Canby High School teachers and even school board members are being pressured to refrain from asking questions.”

Several teachers said that, though they do not push a particular agenda or point of view, that does not mean that politically controversial or hot-button topics won’t come up in the classroom.

Alejandro Lopez, a fourth-grade teacher at Trost Elementary, told the story of one of his students voicing a fear that his father might be deported by immigration agents. Others began asking the first student questions: “Why are they taking him?” and “What did he do wrong?”

“I was neither pushing any agenda nor sharing my views on the topic,” Lopez said. “The conversation just happened because my students are human beings who live in the real world, not in a perfectly round sanitized bubble.

“If policy is changed in regards to freedom of teaching, … am I all of a sudden going to start censoring what my students might say because I would be afraid that I get called by the school board to justify myself? I would not be doing my job to help my students learn to think critically if I silence their voices.”

Other teachers warned about the dangers of censorship and inhibiting academic freedom.

“Estonia was occupied by Soviet Union, I grew up there,” said teacher Piret Tammik. “I know what censoring means, and I am sure that no teacher wants to have it here. I also believe that parents in Canby would like their children to grow up in democratic society versus society controlled by censorship and fear.”

Numerous commenters pleaded with the school board members to use their roles to help foster strong, positive relationships among teachers, parents, students and administration — not make an already difficult situation worse.

Teacher Kelsey Sommer said the board members’ decision to share the parents’ concerns at a public board meeting without first hearing from the educators made her feel “incredibly unsupported.”

“It is important to have a conversation with all parties involved and to not make decisions based on hearsay,” she said. “In my 12 years of teaching, I have found that a student’s interpretation of a situation may not be entirely accurate, so without discussing the issue with the teacher, how can a decision be made?”

“Teachers deserve the professional courtesy of PRIVATE conversations about parent and community concerns,” wrote Nicki Salisbury, a 22-year veteran of the Canby School District. “I am not asking for a free ticket to do whatever I want. I am asking that the current protocol and policies stay in place, and that they are followed, so that concerns are addressed in a way that will not damage my reputation needlessly and recklessly.”

Depner, however, pointed out that she attempted to get more information about the lesson and its objectives — information she said she did not receive for several weeks (and the email records provided to the Current do appear to bear this out).

“I will always discuss, listen, investigate and ask for additional information if I do not understand,” she said. “That is exactly what happened in the past few weeks. I asked to understand this project, … but I was told the project was appropriate, and no additional information was provided until recently.”

Carlson and Scott both defended their actions and alluded to other instances of political speech occurring in Canby classrooms, which they did not elaborate on.

“There have been far more concerns that have been brought up than just this one picture, far more,” Carlson said. “There is always more to the story. I have talked to several parents personally. Email is not the only form of communication that I use.”

Carlson said she does encourage parents to “go through the proper channels” when approached with concerns — i.e., speak with their teachers and/or administrators directly — but that she will “happily and boldly stand in the gap” for those who are concerned about retaliation.

“Our children’s minds are impressionable,” Carlson said. “God values every one of these kiddos’ minds as well as their hearts. We are called to protect our kids and I take that call very seriously. When I see things going on that jeopardize their protection, I feel a deep conviction to call it out and bring it to light.”

The question of retaliation was brought up several times throughout the meeting. Carlson and Depner had said at the Oct. 1 meeting that parents approached them rather than the administrative process spelled out in the district’s policies because they feared reprisal for their children.

Several teachers addressed the supposed threat of retaliation, but perhaps none so memorably as Abbie Perrin, a former Canby teacher for 13 years who took the year off to support her own children and family through distance learning.

“I hate to break it to everyone, but the teachers are exhausted,” she said. “To even suggest that retaliation is even a possibility is insane, even on a good day. It is the last thing on their mind.

“They are worried about their own children and trying to figure out how to modify their lessons to meet every child’s needs, not just yours. You are not the center of their universe as much as you would like to think. Find something better to focus on.”

However, the prescribed process for addressing concerns doesn’t always work, according to Michael and Shelley Vissers, who said they were stiff-armed by administrators for four years about unspecified “behavioral problems” that were occurring at a local school.

The matter wasn’t addressed, they said, until a teacher brought it up at a school board meeting. They said the one good thing that has come out of distance learning is that parents are now able to be much more involved in their children’s education.

“Parents are now more aware than ever as to what their students are being taught and it is an eye-opener for some,” the Vissers said. “While I believe 98% of our teachers are fabulous and are teaching our kids how we all expect them to, there is the 2% that are crossing the line and taking away students and parents Constitutional rights.”

In their written comments, parents shared other examples of what they called “indoctrination” that they said have occurred in Canby’s classrooms.

When she was a student herself at Ackerman Middle School, local mother Kristin Morris said a teacher awarded extra credit to students who attended a Democratic candidate’s town hall meeting, but not one hosted by their Republican challenger.

“In the following years, my kids relayed incident after incident where teachers spoke of the ‘evils’ of capitalism, lauded socialism and communism, openly mocked and disparaged our current president and ridiculed students who held conservative or faith-based beliefs,” she said. “I have been irate more times than I can remember, but my kids never wanted me to raise the issue for fear of retaliation.”

Matt and Emily Stewart, parents of a student at Canby High School, criticized a government teacher there for hosting an unfiltered discussion about politically divisive current events.

“At the end of the second week, the class time was spent participating in ‘First Amendment Friday,’ where the teacher let the class have a free-for-all about Black Lives Matter, ANITFA, and their hatred for the police,” they wrote. “The teacher didn’t interject, wouldn’t offer another side; for all intents and purposes, he lit the fuse and watched it burn.”

Their student, who holds conservative views and has family members in law enforcement, was so upset by the discussion that he asked to be removed from the class by his IEP case manager and counselor. They agreed.

Sarah Morrow shared several examples of inappropriate political speech she said her children have heard from teachers, including “If Trump is elected, your Hispanic friends are going to be deported” and “Obama is the greatest president we’ve ever had and he needs to be re-elected.”

One teacher, she claimed, said “Trump got what he deserved” when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi shredded a copy of the president’s speech during his State of the Union address earlier this year, and instructed students to “take a piece of paper and tear it up.”

“This is not educating my children how to think for themselves,” Morrow said. “This is not education at all.”

Canby teachers do not push personal political agendas, Canby teachers said repeatedly and in no uncertain terms Thursday night. Nor will they stand by while their contractually and legally guaranteed rights to academic freedom are trampled.

“Censorship has no place in our schools,” Ninety-One School math teacher Anna Digby said. “Censorship hurts students. I would remind you that the Academic Freedom clause in the contract allows teachers to make choices that allow us to best teach our students. And I assure you, we take this responsibility very seriously.”

Educators have been “working themselves into the ground” to make the district’s new distance-learning model engaging for students, visual arts teacher Jennifer Dorsey said. For the arrangement to work, however, it will take trust — and lots of it.

“We have to trust that our students and parents are giving us the benefit of the doubt as we navigate distance learning,” she wrote. “We need to trust that our lessons are not being taken out of context and picked apart to prove a personal bias.

“We need to trust that elected members of the school board will follow procedures already in place if there are any questions surrounding the content of what we are teaching. We need to trust that if there are any concerns, members of this school board will be professional and follow their own school board policies.”

Canby High School government teacher Chris Bangs said he was personally attacked by parents on the community Facebook group Canby Now — which he claimed was encouraged by Carlson, Depner and Scott.

“This was a grossly unfair attack on me encouraged by you,” he said. “This does not help your teachers, students, or schools and constitutes a violation of your role as board members.”

He also asked what qualifications and experience they possess to review teachers’ curriculums and lesson plans and determine appropriate content. The district’s administrators and teachers have these qualifications and experience, Bangs said; most of the school board members do not.

“As for myself, I have a bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s degree in teaching, and more than two decades experience teaching political topics in Canby schools without a single formal complaint,” he said. “I implore you to trust in my expertise and to trust the administrators you hired to ensure everyone is doing their jobs properly.”

Board member Scott has “no interest” in infringing upon the academic freedom of Canby School District staff, he said, but academic freedom has limits.

“Academic freedom does not allow for unfettered use of content,” he said. “I believe most would agree that there is a line somewhere that academic freedom must not cross. I think the rub in our disagreement is that it is very difficult to agree on where that academic content line is drawn.”

While agreeing that most educators use good judgment in fulfilling their roles to — as was oft-repeated Thursday night — “teach kids how to think, not what to think,” he said he, too, has heard many concerns about “inappropriate, politically charged content in the classroom.”

He pleaded for all involved to listen to each other and strive for common ground.

“I believe we need to have open conversations,” he said. “Each side has valuable points that should be addressed. However, if we continue to point to district policies, complaint procedures, academic freedom and contracts, it will become increasingly difficult to find good resolution.”

Magenheimer agreed that cooler heads should prevail where children and their future are concerned.

“Let’s be better, Canby,” she said. “Let’s work together with understanding, with empathy and with grace. Let’s be peacemakers, let’s find common ground, and let’s leave a legacy that we can all be proud of.

“I believe that’s possible. I believe we can do that as a board, as a community, and as a school. There’s no other way our kids will win.”

Watch the complete Oct. 15 meeting of the Canby School Board below:

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