School Board continues ‘divisive’ content policy talks

Published 2:13 pm Friday, January 20, 2023

Isle of Wight County’s School Board inched closer to a compromise on a proposal to remove “divisive” content from the school system’s curriculum.

The board discussed the proposed policy change for over an hour at a Jan. 19 work session.

In December, board member Mark Wooster proposed what he termed a “more comprehensive” version of a state-mandated policy intended to allow parents to opt their children out of “sexually explicit” instructional materials. Wooster’s proposal, which had initially proposed banning content deemed sexually explicit or “inherently divisive,” drew fierce opposition at the board’s Jan 12 meeting from students and teachers who condemned the move as “censorship.”

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The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in 2022 requiring school boards to adopt policies by Jan. 1 that are “consistent with” or “more comprehensive than” new Virginia Department of Education model policies, which require schools to provide at least 30 days’ notice ahead of using any sexually explicit instructional materials. The law defines “sexually explicit” as “lewd exhibition of nudity,” or any image or description of “sexual excitement, sexual conduct, sadomasochistic abuse, coprophilia, urophilia, bestiality or fetishism.” The School Board had voted in November, before Wooster took office, to incorporate the model policy language into an existing policy designated IIA.

Wooster and board member Jason Maresh, both of whom won their seats in the Nov. 8 election, campaigned for their positions on opposition to “divisive” and “sexually explicit” learning materials. In 2021, a group of county residents – Maresh among them – began accusing School Board members and school administrators of using equity and inclusion efforts to promote tenets of Critical Race Theory, which argues laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minorities. Maresh took specific issue with Smithfield High School’s “Read Woke” challenge, contending in a 2021 letter that the social justice-themed books the school’s library encouraged students to read “disparage white people as privileged, inherently racist, oppressors.” Other parents, in 2021, had argued the books’ use of profanity and depictions of sex – and in some cases, rape – was inappropriate for teenagers.

Wooster’s December draft defined the term “inherently divisive” as “any ideas in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” including:

  • That “one race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith is inherently superior.”
  • That “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, is racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”
  • That “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith.”
  • That “members of one race, ethnicity, sex or faith cannot and should not attempt to treat others as individuals without respect to race, sex or faith.”
  • That “an individual’s moral character is inherently determined by his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith.” 
  • That “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, ethnicity, sex or faith.”
  • That “meritocracy or traits, such as hard work ethic, are racist or sexist or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.”

The definition language is taken verbatim from Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order No. 1, which mandated an end to “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory,” in public schools.    

By Jan. 19, Wooster had amended his proposal to specify that sexually explicit and inherently divisive materials would only be “restricted” from use in instructional materials in kindergarten through eighth grade. Wooster then proposed allowing parents of high school students the ability to “opt in,” but he changed the wording back to the 30-day opt-out allowed under the November version of Policy IIA after Deputy Superintendent Susan Goetz warned an opt-in would create a “paperwork nightmare.”

“Teachers feel very uneasy right now. … They are literally backing away from teaching things that might fall under this,” Goetz told the board at the work session..

One of Isle of Wight’s teachers, she said, had planned to teach “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a 1986 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood in which the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic government that has replaced the United States, forces a caste of women known as “handmaids” to conceive children. That teacher is no longer planning to teach the novel, despite not having been explicitly prohibited from doing so, Goetz said.

Wooster’s second draft of his proposed changes to Policy IIA further specified that the “purpose of this policy” would not apply to “standardized national or state assessments” such as Virginia’s Standards of Learning exams, or advanced-placement courses, which allow high school students to receive college credits. Several students and teachers had contended at the Jan. 12 meeting that Wooster’s December draft of the policy, if enacted, might cause Isle of Wight to lose its AP program and, in turn, cause high school seniors to potentially lose their acceptance to colleges.

The College Board, which functions as the overseeing organization for advanced-placement courses, has stated on its website that if schools censor required topics from their AP courses, the board will remove the AP designation from that course and its inclusion in the AP course ledger provided to colleges and universities.

The language barring the policy’s applicability to standardized national or state assessments, however, is stricken from a third draft Wooster put forward toward the end of the Jan. 19 meeting after Goetz said that nearly all the school system’s instructional materials relate to Virginia’s Standards of Learning exams.

Maresh then proposed striking the majority of the references to “inherently divisive” content in Policy IIA and instead moving it to INB, an existing policy pertaining to the teaching of controversial issues.

Policy INB currently states that teachers are to “establish a learning environment where each student can study the issues within a curriculum that is appropriate to the student’s knowledge and maturity” and “provide instruction in an atmosphere that is free from bias, prejudice, or coercion.” It further states that the School Board is not to “endorse any political party or candidate.”

The proposed revisions to Policy INB, which Maresh said were written by Windsor-area resident Lewis Edmonds, would prohibit teachers from endorsing “any political party, political party platform, or candidate while providing instruction.” Teachers would further be barred from instructing, promoting, advancing the idea or persuading students to “only view life through the lens of race and/or presume that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are inherently victims because of their race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status or disability.”

Maresh contends the “lion’s share” of the material to which he’d objected in 2021 has already been removed from Isle of Wight schools.

“The Read Woke challenge is no longer hanging on the Smithfield High School website, bravo!” Maresh said. “I didn’t ban the books, I never wanted to ban the books; what I don’t want is Isle of Wight County Schools promoting a book that is contrary to the values of the majority of the people in Isle of Wight County.”

The goal of this latest policy revision, Maresh said, is to “make sure that it stays out.”

Board member Denise Tynes, who’d stated on Jan. 12 that there was “no way” she could vote for Wooster’s proposed changes as of that date, maintained her objection to Wooster’s second draft and accused the new board members of having “brought havoc” to Isle of Wight County Schools.

“I never thought that I would see the day that we would be sitting here trying to censor what children are going to read,” Tynes said, noting the November version of Policy IIA already in place allows for parents to review and opt their children out of any content they find objectionable.

Board Chairman John Collick, who’d campaigned for his seat in 2021 on a platform that included opposition to Critical Race Theory, agreed with Maresh that the “inherently divisive” additions to Policy IIA should be pulled out and moved to a different policy. He further acknowledged that what is deemed “divisive” is “in the eyes of the beholder.”

The School Board concluded by voting 3-1 with board member Michael Cunningham absent to table discussion of Policy IIA to a “time to be determined in the future.” Wooster cast the dissenting vote.

“I felt we had come to an agreeable language compromise in the policy that would be beneficial to everyone,” Wooster told The Smithfield Times via email about his decision to vote “no” on tabling the matter. “Mrs. Goetz was acceptable to the policy with the revisions, as was I, and I felt it was ready to go back for second read and vote at the next business meeting,”