Prompted by more than a dozen people who spoke against Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger’s email directive reminding teachers that they must remain apolitical on heated topics, the school board will examine the district’s policy on controversial topics and possibly rewrite it.
School board members agreed to hear from their attorney Nov. 11 for a possible redraft of its Teaching About Controversial Issues and Use of Controversial Materials policy, or its IMB policy.
The email directive led to the removal of several posters of Black Lives Matter and Blue Line, a show of support for police officers, from several schools. The email also reminded teachers not to wear clothing that connects to any social or political movements embroiled in heated political debates.
The email says: “It is clear we live in a society where emotions are high and many are divided on a number of issues that center around politics and social movements in our country. All of us have a right to hold our positions privately as citizens in our community. Our school district must remain apolitical as our charge is to serve ALL of our community and remain neutral in controversial matters.”
Durango resident Emily Thompson, one of the 13 people who spoke at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, asked for the controversial topics policy be reconsidered and rewritten to accommodate greater support for racial justice movements such as Black Lives Matter.
“We’ve been asking the district to address racial equity for a while, and with the George Floyd protest, I asked the district to issue a statement in support of students who are traumatized by that. And no action was taken,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Thompson said the board has begun creating a committee to address issues of equity and diversity, a step in the right direction, but more immediate attention is needed to update district policies to reflect the current state of race relations and movements calling for racial equity.
“Basically, what we’re asking is that the district actively, specifically the board, oversee racial equity, and take an antiracist stance, address curriculum, and not let it be in the hands of Snowberger because he doesn’t have the skills to do it, or the language or the understanding or the cultural awareness,” she said.
DeeDee deHaro-Brown, who also spoke at Tuesday night’s 9-R board meeting, said she wanted to emphasize the school district’s history as a laggard in addressing issues of racial inequity.
“There are so many newcomers in Durango 9-R, I wanted to emphasize the relationship with minority students has not been the best,” she said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “In the late 1990s, there was no English as a second language program or English language learners program. It had to be brought about by an Office of Civil Rights lawsuit.”
At the meeting Tuesday, school board member Erika Brown, calling for an examination of the controversial topics policy, said she worried it dissuaded teachers from addressing the topics in the classroom.
“The policy could use a rewrite,” she said, adding she wanted greater explanation about the definition of “controversial.”
School Board President Shere Byrd said there is some reason to be cautious in approaching the issue. However, she added, “I think there does need to be some training around best practices.”
School board member Kristin Smith agreed examining the controversial topics policy was important, adding the board needs input from people of color.
“We lack that diversity piece amongst ourselves as board members,” she said.
Snowberger informed school board members that 9-R’s policy on controversial topics is taken word for word from the Colorado Association of School Boards, largely because it has been vetted by lawyers for legality, and he cautioned making any changes without advice from the school district’s attorney.
Smith concurred, noting she initially called for an examination of the policy with advice from counsel after an earlier incident involving an angry exchange between high school students and people inside a Main Avenue yogurt shop during a student-organized march about climate change.
On Wednesday, Snowberger said, he was frustrated that many people may have departed from Tuesday’s school board meeting with the misimpression that examination of issues like racial justice and addressing the role played by organizations like Black Lives Matter is not allowed in Durango schools.
Addressing those issues in the classroom is permitted with teachers presenting fair, accurate information about issues from all perspectives and allowing students to come to their own conclusions.
“Absolutely, there’s a misconception by many about what that memo actually was alluding to. And it’s not about banning teaching about justice and racial equity. That is happening. It’s happening in appropriate ways, in educational settings that meet academic standards,” he said. “These are absolutely appropriate topics that we encourage staff to teach and talk about with their students. It is when it becomes an opinion or propaganda, or they’re promoting it in some way. That is where we have to draw the line.”
Incidents of racism on 9-R campuses are prohibited, and Snowberger said parents should immediately report them to the school and the administration.
Another frustration, he said are reports about racist incidents at schools that have gone unreported, either to the school or to administration.
“Unless we’re aware of the situation, we can’t address it,” he said. “I do know our schools have supports for students when these kinds of concerns arise. We can provide counseling and social-emotional learning. Schools have a tolerance curriculum that they will work with students. I know it’s very embedded in our schools. And we really do support tolerance.”