Controversial Topics Policy: Changes Could Be Coming

Learn How Student Rights May Be Impacted

Bridget Parks ('21), Orbit Contributor

Recently, the school committee began discussing the revision of a long-standing policy regarding so-called “controversial topics” at school, resulting in possible revisions to it that have implications for teachers and student groups at the high school.  The committee is also considering changes to their policy regarding students’ rights and responsibilities.  In the process of creating these revisions, the school committee has not reached out for feedback from students.

Over the course of the last two school committee meetings, members have been discussing possible revisions to the “controversial topics” policy.  The policy as it currently stands, exists to “introduce students to reasoned and dispassionate approaches to the analysis of contemporary social and political issues.”  

The policy was originally approved in 2007 and it cites as a source the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.  The school committee is currently considering whether to add language that further defines “controversial topics” as “questions, subjects or problems which can create a difference of opinion. They may include issues which may have political, social, environmental or personal impacts on students and/or the wider community: locally, nationally or internationally.” 

Guidelines for Teachers

The controversial topics policy outlines how teachers should approach these topics.  Current requirements include discussing only topics that “relate directly to the objectives and content of courses approved by the School Committee,” refraining from “using their positions to express partisan points of view,” and ensuring that “reasoned arguments of all sides of an issue are given presentation and emphasis.” Revisions under consideration include allowing some topics to be discussed across all classes, but only with coordination with the principal.  

Restrictions on “Student-initiated Forum”

A second set of considered revisions affects “student-initiated forums.”   If the revisions pass, student groups must request permission to hold “forums” on controversial issues, allowing the principal three weeks’ notice to grant approval.  Also, such forums cannot cause students to miss class time.

“The school committee, as a group, is elected by the town,” began Brody Wolter (‘22), a member of the RMHS Politics Club, “but they do not decide what is and what isn’t my first amendment right.”

Wolter feels that these new inclusions would hold grave implications for the club. In the additions to the policy, it states, “Adequate advance planning must be conducted for each forum. A request to hold a forum must be received by the Principal at least three weeks before the scheduled date of presentation. For each request the Principal will appoint, after consultation with the requesting student group, an adult advisory group consisting of at least two parents/guardians and two faculty members.” 

Though the policy does not specify whether an existing student club can be considered a “forum”, the Politics club and others like it could potentially be regarded as one. If these new standards were to be implemented on the Politics Club, the current setup would have to change completely. “We don’t plan meeting topics even the day of, so it would make the meetings inherently impossible,” describes Wolter. “We have started talking about college and we got into how the healthcare system is inherently bad for the poor, we can’t anticipate that, we can’t say, ‘okay everything is on the table for this week’ every week.”

New Language Regarding Students’ Right to Assemble

Both the changes to the policy on controversial topics and the proposed changes to the policy on students’ rights and responsibilities would represent new limitations to students’ right to assemble.   If a student group wishes to hold a public demonstration, this may be ruled a “forum” on a controversial topic.  This will require approval from the building principal regarding the place and time the demonstration is to occur.  Similarly, such a forum will need the 3 weeks notice before the event is to take place. Margaret Coles (‘21), who has participated in past walkouts like the one during her Freshman year regarding the Parkland shooting, said, “I feel like it would have been possible [to hold these protests], but I feel like it kind of defeats the point.”

It is important to note that the protest regarding the Parkland shooting did receive approval prior to the event taking place. This means that the normal risks of protesting, such as detentions or suspensions, were not something that students who walked out would have to worry about. This style of protest would be very similar to the changes made under the current policy revisions.

In regards to the 1st amendment, Wolter summarized his feelings as, “We have rulings about this.” Wolter referred to the Supreme Court case Tinker V. Des Moines. “They ruled that not only was the protest in that case allowed– student’s do not lose their first amendment rights to freedom of speech when they step on school property.” Wolter goes on to express that, in his opinion, the revisions as they stand currently violate his first amendment protections.

In the case of Tinker V. Des Moines, Mary Beth Tinker, John Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt wore black bands to school as a form of protest to support a truce in the Vietnam War. The students were then sent home. In the lawsuit that followed, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 7-2 decision, in favor of Tinker. The majority opinion was that students did not lose their right to freedom of speech when they were in school, however, schools could suppress speech if they could prove that it would have significant impacts on the ability to maintain operations of the school.

Of the three students interviewed, 2 of them found out about these possible changes through being reached out to for an interview. “If that had slipped under the rug, and they suddenly started doing these policy changes, there would have been outcry,” Wolter states.

“I didn’t even know it was happening until you sent the school committee packet,” explained Coles, “I feel like they didn’t really take student voice into consideration, and, especially after reading what the teachers sent them in response to it, it feels like they didn’t really consult teachers or students, the people that would actually be affected.” 

The response by the teachers that Coles is referring to is a letter included in the December 3rd School Committee packet written by the RMHS Teachers Against Racism group. The letter gives the opinion of this group of teachers and asks for the School Committee to reaffirm students’ voices in regard to political discussions rather than censor it. The entire letter can be accessed in the December 3rd School Committee packet, which is open to the public.

All students interviewed confirmed that they do believe that the school committee should be able to have control over what teachers are allowed to teach, but not to the same extent as this new policy would imply. Vivian Greenwalt (‘23) states that, “I think that there is definitely some stuff that [the school committee] should be like, ‘ teach this how you want’ if we are talking about To Kill a Mockingbird, where we didn’t learn about black history in that time, though we should have.” Greenwalt does believe, however, that the school committee should maintain the right from teaching topics that have nothing to do with the subject they are discussed in, “like constellations in history.”

Wolter concludes his opinions, “The decision to censor the student body is not only illegal, as it violates the Supreme Court case, it also is directly harmful for the students. I participate in regular discussions about current events with Politics Club, but this would impact so many more people than that. Youth activist groups, our people of color in Reading, our very few of them because we are not diverse, our GSA would also get censored. We’d lose our representation of these minority groups by censoring them.”