Pennridge proposed policy on student expression goes ‘way further than anything I have ever seen’ ACLU lawyer says

The Pennridge school board is considering a policy that would limit the “nonschool materials” students can share in school and online.

Pennridge School District (Google maps)

Pennridge School District (Google maps)

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Pennridge School District is following in step with Central Bucks School District’s library book policy. But many say they are taking censorship even further.

Some new draft policies regarding student speech, teacher expression, and curriculum are concerning parents and the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Up for a second read in the board’s policy committee meeting on Monday is a new policy about “student expression” and “dissemination of materials.”

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Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said he’s never seen a policy like this in his career.

“I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve sued a lot of school districts. This is going way further than anything I have ever seen.”

The policy addresses “student expression in general as well as dissemination of expressive materials that are not part of district-sponsored activities (nonschool materials).” Student expression includes “verbal, written, technological or symbolic representation or communication.”

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The policy intends to limit any non-school materials disseminated by students.

Non-school materials are defined as “any printed, technological or written materials, regardless of form, source, or authorship, that are not prepared as part of the curricular or extracurricular program of the district, including but not limited to fliers, invitations, announcements, pamphlets, posters, online discussion areas and digital bulletin boards, personal websites and the like.”

During a committee meeting when this policy was discussed, Pennridge Superintendent David Bolton said, “I promise that the intent of this will not be valentines at elementary school. I promise. Although, technically, it may very well.”

Pennridge representatives did not respond to WHYY’s multiple requests for comment.

Walczak said the ACLU is gearing up for a fight.

“I’m almost speechless at just how overbroad this policy is. This literally says that the school has a right to control everything that the students communicate to each other in writing or through text or digitally,” Walczak said.

Walczak said the policy is “Orwellian.”

“It has no place in a public school. It has no place in America.”

Walczak said the policy could limit a student who wants to wear a pride sticker, or share a printed invitation with others to come to their “church social.”

He said the ACLU would consider a “pre-enforcement” challenge. Meaning, even before the district enforces the policy, the ACLU might bring them to court.

“But even if not, as soon as they apply this improperly, and this is a highway to improper application, we’ll be in court once we receive a complaint.”

Stacey Smith has a daughter going into third grade in the district.

She is among a group of parents who are coordinating efforts to fight the policies. Smith described the situation as “overwhelming.”

“It feels like a strangulation of their expression as students,” Smith said. “My daughter sometimes will wear a T-shirt to school that says, ‘love is love’ or something like that. Is this going to mean that she can’t wear this shirt to school?”

Smith pointed to an issue with a number of the policies the board has proposed: vague terminology. And as Walczak explained, just like in the battle over in Central Bucks, vagueness leaves the door open for unconstitutional censorship.

A policy for ‘advocacy activities’

Another Pennridge policy on ACLU’s radar: ”Advocacy Activites.”

The proposed policy says the board recognizes the rights of its employees “to engage in areas of advocacy including but not limited to religion, gender identity, social, political and geo-political matters. However, district time, resources, property or equipment, paid for by taxpayers, may not be used for advocacy purposes by district employees when performing assigned duties.”

Parents and the ACLU are concerned because they do not know how the district is defining “social” or “gender identity” matters.

Walczak said it’s standard for school districts to not allow employees to engage in “political activity,” which is “really defined as campaign politics.”

But the board is attempting to replace political activity with advocacy activities, which is not clearly defined.

“That kind of imprecision and vagueness is a violation of the First Amendment in and of itself, because people are going to self-censor and say, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know where the line is,’” Walczak said.

Leah Rash has two children in Pennridge High School.

“What I’m concerned will happen is there might be a holistically grown conversation in a classroom about something that’s currently happening in the country or in the world. And that’s a ‘social matter.’ And if that happens, does the teacher have to shut it down?”

Rash is concerned about a list of other policies that are up for a first read in August, policies that are focused on creating new review processes for educational materials, and increasing public transparency for classroom materials and other student resources.

A policy for textbook purchases and lists

One policy would require teachers to maintain a public list of their textbooks.

The policy also states the “superintendent or designee shall develop a process for the selection of textbooks.” The policy does not clarify who the designee is, or what that process will exactly look like.

“It’s just going to be policing, and telling on people, and our education is going to be put on the back burner,” Rash said.

Parents prepare to fight

Smith said once Central Bucks passed its library book policy, many Pennridge ears perked.

“We knew to get ready because we knew it was going to happen here,” Smith said.

The parents coordinating against the Pennridge policies are now working with Central Bucks parents to learn from their experiences.

Smith said there’s strength in numbers.

“Knowing that we can commiserate and there are our neighboring districts who are experiencing the same issues and we can work together to try and make it a more inclusive environment and a less restrictive environment for our kids… That’s really helpful.”

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