Critics worry Pennridge School Board policy proposals would stifle free speech, advocacy

"How can people in Pennridge be 'Pennridge Proud' if they can't show any pride," said one student.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022
Pennridge School Board holds policy meeting to clear up misconceptions
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The policies deal with student expression and dissemination of materials.

PERKASIE, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- The Pennridge School Board in Bucks County is trying to clear up what it calls misconceptions about two policies concerning teacher advocacy and student expression.

The most recent Policy Committee meeting saw a lot of discussion centered around Policy 321, titled Advocacy Activities.

The policy was written by the Pennsylvania School Board Association. A spokesperson with the Pennridge School District said that school boards are allowed to make adjustments that fit their specific districts.

The adjustment Pennridge is seeking to make states: "Employees shall not engage in advocacy activities during assigned work hours on property under the jurisdiction of the Board. Further, all staff will retain their personal views and remain neutral on advocacy-related matters during assigned work hours."

There are exceptions in the policy for classroom "discussion and study of advocacy-related matters when applicable to the curriculum and appropriate to classroom studies."

"It is not about restricting any debate... We always want to encourage debate in the classroom so long as a teacher is neutral," said Republican School Board Member Ron Wurz at Monday night's meeting. "It is important that our teachers do not share their opinions as facts on any divisive issue."

Adrienne King, a mother and one of the leaders of the education sub-committee of the NAACP Bucks County Chapter, worries about how the district would define advocacy-related matters.

"The celebration of Juneteenth, things like that, (are) being (portrayed as) political," she said.

Critics fear Policy 321 would prevent teachers from advocating on behalf of students including those who are minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

"How can people in Pennridge be 'Pennridge Proud' if they can't show any pride," said one student who spoke at Monday night's meeting.

King also felt compelled to share some startling experiences from families who'd shared with her issues of racism and discrimination within Pennridge School District.

After a lengthy discussion and public comment, school leaders tabled the advocacy proposal.

"I became concerned that this policy could have a chilling effect on our school and our students," said Wurz. "The way it was written could prevent anything personal from being displayed in the classroom including signs of support for many areas like mental health, autism, suicide prevention, environment, gender, and even tasteful and positive shows of them. To me that is not what the policy should be about."

The school board is moving forward with a different policy. Policy 220, titled "Student Expression," would restrict students from disseminating what the district calls expressive materials.

Critics say the proposal amounts to censorship, but Pennridge Superintendent Dr. David Bolton addressed the crowd at Monday night's meeting to make a clarification.

"This doesn't change student expression from a standpoint of what they can wear, what they can say, what they can hand out to their friends. This has to do with if I want to invite the entire school somewhere, how do I do that," said Bolton.

School board leaders clarified that the policy would only apply to widespread dissemination of non-school materials using school-issues devices during school hours.

"When it says student expression, I understand why that is a nerve. But it really is dissemination of non-school-related materials. And if you read the policy, that is really all it addresses," said Bolton.

It's enough of a clarification to satisfy parents like King for now.

"I feel like we can't rest here. There's something else coming," said King.

She created a nonprofit, the PairUP Society to help families fight for inclusive schools. The group is organizing a Unity Walk in Bucks County in October.