IW School Board won’t remove iPad apps that drew parent objections

Published 1:22 pm Friday, April 1, 2022

Isle of Wight County’s School Board has declined to remove two programs from school-issued iPads, which at least one parent says provide “dangerous and sensitive material” to children.

Candice Vande Brake, the mother of a Windsor Elementary School kindergartner, started the process outlined in School Board Policy KLB several months ago for challenging books and other learning resources — in this case, the eMediaVA and Discovery Education apps.

When a committee consisting of Windsor Elementary’s principal, media specialist, a classroom teacher and a reading coach voted to continue using the challenged apps, Vande Brake appealed to the school system’s central office, which upheld the committee’s decision. She made her final appeal to the School Board on March 30.

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In eMediaVA, she said, she found a news article titled “Police shooting of Louisiana man sparks outrage” and a children’s book titled “Max and the Talent Show,” which features a transgender character. She also found an article titled “Should teens be able to get a vaccine without parental consent?” and one where students could “learn about the influence of the communist values of organization, discipline and collectivism.”

In Discovery Education, she said, she found articles on “sex, gender identity and implicit bias,” as well as “HIV/AIDS: staying safe” and “LGBTQ rights.”

Vande Brake described the material as “fostering mindsets that could contribute to diminished family and religious values.”

“We have appealed, appealed and now we’re appealing a third time … in an attempt to better the school system for all children and protect our child’s innocence,” Vande Brake said.

When questioned by the School Board, Vande Brake said the school system had already approved her request to remove the apps from her own child’s iPad, but she was now “representing a number of parents” and was seeking to have the apps removed from every iPad issued to Isle of Wight County Schools’ 5,500-plus students.

“What number of parents?” School Board Chairwoman Denise Tynes asked.

“I would probably say 75% of the community,” Vande Brake replied.

“Without having the correct filters on there … I think the best thing is to take it off all the iPads,” Vande Brake said. “You could send your kid and say, ‘Hey, go play with your school-issued device in your room for 10 minutes … and the next thing you know your son, daughter, could come out and be asking you sex questions, and you’re just not ready to deal with it at five years old or on a Wednesday night when you worked a 12-hour shift.”

Tynes, however, asked for proof that Vande Brake was indeed speaking for 75% of Isle of Wight’s parents, and argued it was indeed parents’ responsibility, and not the school system’s, to monitor their children’s use of school-issued devices when they take them home.

“When that child is at home with you, you’re responsible for what they retrieve,” Tynes said.

“We can only control our own households,” board member Michael Vines agreed.

The “Max and the Talent Show” story about the transgender boy “offended me,” Vines added. “I don’t want my grandkids, you know, being led down that road … I am in complete agreement with you that these items should be removed, but it begins at home.”

As for the sexual content Vande Brake found, “No parent in their right mind is going to walk up behind their child and see their child looking at pornographic material and let them continue,” Vines added. “You’re going to stop them. Am I right?”

However, board member Renee Dial, a physician assistant, said she didn’t consider it “pornographic” for children to learn the correct names for their body parts.

“I’m OK and comfortable with discussing anatomy with my children because of my background,” Dial said. “I prefer them to know exactly what it’s called and not anything other than that, but that’s me personally, and I don’t want that choice to be taken from me.”

The eMediaVA app is developed by WHRO, a Hampton Roads public broadcasting station owned by a collaboration of 21 public school divisions. According to Susan Goetz, Isle of Wight County Schools’ executive director of leadership, it curates digital content from a variety of sources, including PBS, Colonial Williamsburg, NASA and the Smithsonian. Discovery Education, she said, is very similar but was developed on a national scale, and therefore has content beyond Virginia’s standards of learning.

“When we went into shutdown in March 2020, we very quickly realized we needed more digital content,” Goetz said.

The apps, she said, are particularly useful for when teachers need to work individually with students struggling in a particular subject. WHRO is already working on a change to its eMediaVA app that will limit access for elementary school students to content at their grade level.

“This is a change that is going to be in the new update, which should launch in May or June,” Goetz said. “This is a direct result of us asking them to put better filters in place.”

Discovery Education, she added, has already put some filters in place, and has the ability to restrict content by grade level.

“These companies are responding, they’re listening and they’re attempting to put these filters in place like we’ve asked them to,” Goetz said.

The School Board ultimately voted 3-1 to deny Vande Brake’s request that the apps be removed divisionwide. Board member John Collick cast the dissenting vote.

“We’ve got a lot in there that we’re giving to our kids that probably don’t belong in schools … I’m taken aback by searching ‘police’ and they come up with all this negative stuff for younger kids,” Collick said. “Now, in high school they can talk about current events and stuff, but younger children should know that when they’re in a crowd and they get lost, go to a police officer. He’s going to help you find Mom and Dad.”

Vines, however, said he’d changed his mind following Goetz’s remarks, and joined Tynes and Dial in opposing the apps’ removal.

“You can’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Vines said.

‘If we block Clever, we’re blocking Google’

The School Board then heard another appeal for the removal of certain apps, this time from Heidi Swartz, the mother of a Smithfield High School student. Her appeal, according to the meeting’s agenda, concerned TEDEd, Discovery Education and MackinVIA.

TEDEd, according to IWCS spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, provides access to educationally relevant TED talks and highlights the ideas of teachers and students around the world. TED, according to its website, is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short recordings of speakers talking about particular issues.

MackinVIA, Briggs said, is a digital library that provides students and teachers with access to books and scholarly resources via the internet for research purposes.

All of the apps are available via a student’s “Clever” account, which Briggs described as a “launching pad” where students can log in and access digital content available to them through the school system.

Swartz, however, argued her request went beyond the three apps listed on the agenda.

“I was appealing everything on Clever … even the ‘Read Woke’ challenge,” Swartz said.

The “Read Woke” challenge, which began in 2020 and was reprised in 2021, encourages students to voluntarily read social justice-themed books available at Smithfield High School’s library. Last year, a number of parents took issue with the challenge, some for the sexual content in some of the books, and others who argued the books’ focus on race relations was “divisive.”

“Clever is different for every single teacher in our school division,” said Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton.

“One of the apps on Clever, you might want to know, is Google, so if we block Clever, we’re blocking Google,” said Eric Cooprider, the division’s director of information technology.

Swartz then asked to reschedule her hearing.

‘Partisan or doctrinal disapproval’

Following the conclusion of the two scheduled hearings, the School Board took a first look at proposed changes to the KLB policy Vande Brake and Swartz had used.

The proposed changes now explicitly states materials “shall not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

“The purpose of revising the policy was to actually provide more details and guidelines for the process,” Goetz said. “This policy has been in existence for many years. This is the first time we’ve ever actually gone through the entire process from the beginning to where we are tonight.”

“I demand it be removed from tonight’s agenda,” Collick had stated at the start of the meeting, citing another School Board policy that requires the board “unanimously agree” before considering any business that does not come within a special meeting’s purpose.

“Madam chair, this special meeting is to hear an appeal, not to consider policy,” Collick said. “Policy is part of the regular business of the school board and should be treated as such … This proposed policy could impact parents’ abilities to appeal the very topics we are hearing and considering this evening. … I demand it be removed from tonight’s agenda.”

The public notice the school system had published to advertise the special meeting had listed only one purpose: “appeal of learning resources.”

Tynes made no response to Collick’s remarks other than to call for the question regarding a motion already on the table to approve the agenda as-is, which Vines had made and Dial had seconded. The motion passed 3-1 with Collick voting “nay.”

The revised KLB policy will go before the board for a second read and a vote at a future meeting.