Central Bucks moves forward with policy censoring classroom decor and discussions — despite federal investigation

An aerial view of Lays chips modified to say ''Gays''

Central Bucks School District high school students handed out bags of chips asking people to support LGBTQ students at the Central Bucks School District board meeting on Jan. 10, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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The Central Bucks School District passed a contentious policy that bans teachers from engaging in “advocacy activities” and displaying inclusive symbols like Pride flags in their classrooms.

The school board voted 6-3 on Tuesday night to approve the final draft of the policy — which is part of a federal investigation of the school district.

Board members Mariam Mahmud, Karen Smith, and Tabitha Dell’Angelo voted against the policy.

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A view of a Central Bucks School District board meeting
The Central Bucks School District board passed Policy 321, which bans teachers from “advocacy activities,” on Jan. 10, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Dell’Angelo, a professor of education at the College of New Jersey, said inclusive spaces lead to better educational outcomes for marginalized students.

“Stress impairs cognitive function. Creating classrooms where students know they are valued and included lowers stress and therefore improves cognitive function,” Dell’Angelo said. “Creating inclusive spaces in part means that students see themselves and one another reflected in positive ways in books, materials, displays, etc.”

Kathleen Weintraub hugs their child, CJ, at a school board meeting in Central Bucks
Kathleen Weintraub hugged their child, CJ, before they spoke at the Central Bucks School District board meeting on Jan. 10, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Board President Dana Hunter, Vice President Leigh Vlasblom, and members Debra Cannon, Lisa Sciscio, Sharon Collopy, and Jim Pepper voted for the policy.

Cannon said she wants teachers to act with “neutrality” in the classroom, and not “refuse to teach the curriculum that challenges their own political” viewpoint. She said one teacher, who she did not identify, refused to use the name of former President Donald Trump and instead referred to him as “Number 45.”

The policy specifically says employees should not “advocate” to students on “partisan, political, or social policy matters,” or display any “flag, banner, poster, sign, sticker, pin, button, insignia, paraphernalia, photograph, or other similar material that advocates concerning any partisan, political, or social policy issue.” An early draft of the policy prohibited materials related to “gender identity,” and “sexual orientation,” but school officials removed those terms after legal review and replaced them with “social policy issue.” Hunter told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the policy will ban Pride flags, as well as “Blue Lives Matter flags, anti-abortion flags or any other flags that advocate on social policy issues.”

Community members, students, legal experts, and education advocates have been arguing against the policy for months.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has said the broad language gives the district the authority to censor whatever it doesn’t like, can lead to teachers self-censoring out of confusion and fear, and generally “chill” classroom discussions on political and cultural topics outside of the curriculum.

“Adoption of Policy 321 confirms that the Central Bucks board majority is disregarding and continuing to perpetuate a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students,” said ACLU attorney Rich Ting in a written statement.

Central Buck School District students leave a school board meeting
Central Buck School District students left the school board meeting after board members passed Policy 321 on Jan. 10, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sharon Ward, senior policy advisor for the Education Law Center, said the policy “uses nice words to mask a chilling approach” to “legitimate” classroom discussion.

On Tuesday, about one hundred people crammed into the boardroom, with some standing against the walls because there weren’t enough chairs.

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About three dozen people spoke about the policy during public comment; about one-third spoke in favor of it and two-thirds spoke against.

Tim Daly speaks during a Central Bucks School District board meeting.
Tim Daly spoke about neutrality in the classroom during the public comment portion of the Central Bucks School District board meeting on Jan. 10, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Parent Leah Barnhart, of Doylestown Township, said she supported the policy because she believes staff should “stay neutral and not advocate in favor or against divisive topics that can be handled in the home by the parents.” She thanked the board for not “[elevating] certain minority groups at the expense of marginalizing others. That would be trying to solve discrimination with discrimination… which is unproductive.”

Every student who spoke opposed the policy.

A few students stood at the entrance of the board meeting room handing out bags of Lay’s chips with the word “Gays” on them, advocating against the policy. Each bag had a message on it that read, “Stop attacking LGBTQ students. Let our teachers teach. Students deserve the freedom to learn,” and a QR code linking to the Advocates for Inclusive Education website.

Central Bucks School District high school students Zandi Hall, Ashley Gane, Emma Dickinson, Madyson Szczypiorski, and Skylar Ginsberg stand with bags of Lays chips modified to say ''Gays''
(Left to right) Central Bucks School District high school students Zandie Hall, Ashley Gane, Emma Dickinson, Madyson Szczypiorski, and Skylar Ginsberg handed out bags of chips asking people to support LGBTQ students at the Central Bucks School District board meeting on Jan. 10, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Some students also shared the chips with their classmates before school on Tuesday, in an attempt to inform others about the policy in advance of the meeting.

“It’s a funny play on words and it’s an appreciated joke. And we’re not offended that people are laughing, we’re happy that they are, because that means they’re paying attention, they’re reading it,” said Central Bucks South sophomore Skylar Ginsburg.

A view of a Central Bucks School District board meeting
The Central Bucks School District board passed Policy 321, which bans teachers from “advocacy activities,” on Jan. 10, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Central Bucks West senior Zandie Hall, 17, said administrators confiscated the chips when she brought them in the school.

“They said it was political, so we couldn’t do it,” Hall said.

The students said most other students they spoke to were unaware of the policy.

High school sophomore Ashley Gane, who also handed out chips at the meeting, said she thinks “a lot of people don’t care until they see the actual tragedy of the death of an LGBTQ student.”

Ashley Gane speaks at a Central Bucks School District board meeting
Ashley Gane, 16, asked the Central Bucks School District board if a rainbow bench commemorating her lesbian sister who died by suicide would be allowed to remain on school grounds during the public comment section of the board’s meeting on Jan. 10, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Gane’s sister, Katie, who was lesbian, died by suicide in 2019 as a senior at Central Bucks West. The school has a rainbow bench in her memory.

“She felt like she was being judged and no student in a school should feel like they are being judged for walking into a building,” Gane said.

A bench painted in rainbow colors.
Central Bucks West High School’s memorial for Katie Gane, an LGBTQ student who died by suicide in 2019 as a senior. (Courtesy of district staff member)

Gane said she has been speaking at board meetings to give her sister a voice.

“Maybe my sister couldn’t have gotten through it. I know she tried so hard,” Gane said. “But I know that if she was here right now, she would tell everybody that they would be able to get through it. And I know she would be at this board meeting because she wants people to be happy and she wants people to be proud.”

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