Over the last several years, the majority of southeastern Pennsylvania school districts have adopted a practice to issue statements about social and political issues. The death of George Floyd and the subsequent riots served as the impetus for many districts.
“The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests remind all of us in the Lower Merion School District that our ongoing work to ensure equity is vital,” one such statement reads. “We mourn with Mr. Floyd’s family and friends. We decry the racism that has led to the deaths of far too many people of color, not only at the hands of authorities whose mission should be to protect them but also due to economic disparity, healthcare inequities, and opportunity gaps.”
This excerpt from the Lower Merion School District statement is similar to West Chester, Spring-Ford, Jenkintown, and Upper Darby. In my review, almost every district in suburban Philadelphia sent a similar email, issued a statement, or enacted a resolution to address systemic racism.
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With the recent tragic events in the Middle East, some local districts issued statements or sent emails to families. Other districts that did not issue statements or emails were criticized for not acknowledging the situation. District communications about the issue ranged from commentary on the events to ensuring students’ safety.
Since this practice’s inception, I’ve questioned whether districts should make political statements. While many of these communications are well-intentioned, it seems impossible to please all families with any single statement. Undoubtedly, some recipients will take offense or disagree with the district’s position.
Wondering how other institutions handle political statements, I reviewed the Kalven Report, written in 1967 for the University of Chicago. This proclamation from a faculty committee addressed the issue of the university’s position on issuing political statements. “Our basic conviction is that a great university can perform greatly for the betterment of society. It should not, therefore, permit itself to be diverted from its mission into playing the role of a second-rate political force or influence.”
While this report specifically addresses the university’s stance on making political statements, it seems like prudent advice for local K–12 school districts. Subsequently, I contacted The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and posed the question to Aaron Terr, the Director of Public Policy.
“FIRE endorses the Kalven Report for colleges and universities because of their unique role as venues for academic debate and the pursuit of knowledge,” Terr said. “Institutional neutrality advances colleges’ mission of generating knowledge by creating ideal conditions for students and faculty to speak and think freely. It reduces the risk of establishing a campus orthodoxy that discourages dissent.
“K–12 schools have a different mission than colleges and universities. Public school teachers’ job is to teach the curriculum approved by the state or local government. Also, K-12 education is in part about instilling values and acting in loco parentis, and that purpose may rest uneasily with a firm commitment to institutional neutrality.
“Still, K–12 administrators would do well to consider whether institutional statements about controversial social and political issues discourage students from expressing dissenting opinions, particularly for older students. Schools must also respect the right of teachers and other staff to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern when they are off the clock, even if their views conflict with those of administrators.
“Schools that choose to speak out about social or political issues will also face the dilemma of deciding when to weigh in and when to abstain. Once they comment on certain issues, their silence on others will also send a message.”
Focusing on academics and safety and avoiding political stances will serve students, parents, and taxpayers in a much better way.
Terr’s comments provide additional context and a potential roadmap for school districts. The concluding remarks about when to weigh in and when to abstain are crucial for districts to consider. Districts do not and cannot arbitrarily pick and choose which political or social issues to comment on. For Jewish families living in a school district that commented on the death of George Floyd but not on the deaths of thousands in Israel, the lack of a statement may be perceived as unsupportive and intentional. Therefore, districts are better off not commenting on any social or political issues in order to avoid this dilemma.
But there may be one exception to that practice: ensuring student and staff safety. Terr did note that school districts are different from colleges and universities. When acting in loco parentis, school districts are required to ensure that schools are safe for all students. I know several Jewish families who did not feel safe sending their children to school on Friday, Oct. 13, due to events in the Middle East coupled with a lack of reassurance from their school district.
Districts can issue statements about ensuring the safety of students in the face of political events without taking a side or providing political commentary. Simply acknowledging the situation and enumerating the steps being taken to focus on safety is appropriate and helpful for parents.
For example, Cheltenham School District sent an email to families addressing the safety issue. This excerpt acknowledged what was happening and rightly focused on student safety:
“We have been notified through an information alert by the PA Criminal Intelligence Center of a widely circulating social media post referencing a speech by a leader of Hamas. The alert references a ‘Hamas Call to Violence’ for Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. We are partnered with the Cheltenham Township Police Department on this matter, and they have informed us that there is no credible threat against our schools. Regardless, CTPD will be paying extra attention to our schools today, and will alert us if anything changes.”
The email also included some opinions and statements that were not necessary to address the safety issue.
The most prudent and inclusive practice for districts is to avoid commentary on political and social events. School districts, like universities, can perform greatly for the betterment of society. Let’s leave the political commentary to our elected state and national officials and get school districts refocused on academics and safety.
Ultimately, districts cannot have it both ways. They can’t pick and choose what to comment on, so the easiest solution is to say nothing, other than addressing safety concerns. Silence is not violence, nor does it denote complicity; it is respectful and equitable to ensure that no child or family is offended or upset by a district’s political statement or lack thereof. Focusing on academics and safety and avoiding political stances will serve students, parents, and taxpayers in a much better way.
Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in Education, and has dedicated her career to advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families. She covers education issues for Broad + Liberty. Contact her at email@example.com.