Riverhead BOE fails to adopt revised policy titled ‘Teaching About Controversial Issues’

The Riverhead Board of Education failed to pass a revised policy titled “Teaching About Controversial Issues,” after three board members were absent from Tuesday night’s meeting.

With four board members in attendance, the policy needed a unanimous vote to pass. Vice president Laurie Downs said she wanted a motion to table the resolution until more board members were present.

“We had enough board members to vote on everything else but not this?” said board member Christopher Dorr.

Ms. Downs then conferred briefly with Ashley Pope, a district lawyer, who clarified that four votes would be needed for a motion to pass. After a brief discussion between Ms. Downs, Ms. Pope and Superintendent Augustine Tornatore, which was largely inaudible to the audience as they did not speak into the microphones, Ms. Downs said: “We’re going to vote on it.”

Mr. Dorr cast the lone vote against the revised policy, which was in its third and final reading. Ms. Downs, Virginia Healy and Matthew Wallace voted in favor, but three votes was not enough for it to pass. Board President Brian Connelly and board members Therese Zuhoski and Colin Palmer were absent from the meeting due to work obligations, according to Ms. Downs.

According to the latest draft of the policy available on the district website, “The goal is for students to learn to disagree respectfully and discuss and examine issues rationally, objectively and thoroughly, to enable to students to draw informed conclusions, and function productively and with civility in our democratic society.”

The policy was first adopted in 2005 was last revised in 2012.

The draft lists guidelines for teachers to follow when presenting controversial issues. Part of the revision clarified that matters of controversial nature “are permitted” rather than earlier language that said “such issues shall be neither sought nor avoided.”

It added additional guidelines for teachers, specifying that “grading is based on objective criteria” and that the discussion be conducted “in a manner that takes into account students’ age and development level.”

It also says teachers “will present adequate background information so that students can have informed discussions and be able to discuss the issue intelligently.”

The final addition said: “The Board supports its staff in gaining the skills to be fully capable of discussing and presenting controversial topics, which includes successfully guiding students through the process, and managing contentious or heated exchanges. The district will provide for professional development and mentoring for teachers and administrative staff in this area, and encourages staff to participate in these activities.”

Mr. Dorr presented his concerns about the policy during the Aug. 30 board meeting. His concerns were about parents’ right to have their student removed from the class if they’re uncomfortable with a controversial topic being discussed in the classroom.

“Controversial issues, especially nowadays, parents need to be more involved,” Mr. Dorr said at the Aug. 30 meeting. “A lot of this needs to be taught in the home and not in the school.”

At that same meeting, Mr. Tornatore said the policy committee members had reviewed the document with him and with William Galati, executive director of secondary education, grants and student outcomes. He also said the committee followed guidance from New York State School Boards Association when making the policy.

“We certainly understand that there are parents or guardians or students who may be uncomfortable with certain topics … we want there to be a lively conversation between students and their teacher but it’s never to showcase only one particular view,” Mr. Tornatore said. “While I certainly understand your concerns it is in no way to make any student or parent or guardian uncomfortable with conversations.”

Ms. Healy said at that meeting she was glad that the policies went through the review process to add in the parameters.

“These parameters, what I like, is that they’re making sure that there’s no bias,” she said. “And that when you’re grading, it’s objective and the discussion does take into account the student’s ages and development level. I’m glad that you guys went back and brought some of those pieces in.”