October 5, 2021

Wayne Gerson: How the ‘divisive concepts’ battle will unfold

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Wayne Gerson is a former superintendent of schools of Dresden School District in New Hampshire. In an op-ed for the Valley News, he looked at how New Hampshire’s new laws against “divisive concepts” in the classroom can be expected to play out.

Despite the protests of advocates of public education and free speech, New Hampshire’s “divisive concepts” legislation will go into effect this fall. To implement the law, Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut will issue a technical advisory for administrators and school boards, an advisory that he states “will aim to delineate exactly how the new teaching prohibitions will apply in the classroom.”

I do not believe it is possible to develop an exact delineation of “divisive concepts.” Instead, the definition of “divisive concepts” will emerge from a succession of appeals to administrators and school boards by parents and “concerned citizens” who are uncomfortable with some element of a school’s curriculum or operations.

Three examples illustrate how I believe the definition of “divisive concepts” will emerge, examples that show how this incremental process will affect school boards, school administrators and especially classroom teachers.

Relentless records requests

A Fox News report by Joshua Nelson in early June offers a preview of what lies ahead for school boards in New Hampshire. The report described Rhode Island parent Nicole Solas’ appearance on Fox and Friends during which she recounted her efforts to find evidence that her kindergarten-age child was being exposed to “anything with gender theory or anti-racism.”

She called the principal who told her that they refrained “from using gendered terminology in general terms of anti-racism.” She also learned that kids in kindergarten were asked “what could have been done differently at Thanksgiving?” which struck her “as a way to shame children for their American heritage.”

Solas then sought to see the curriculum for herself. To do so, she had to submit a public records request. Upon receiving some information, Solas said she “did not see any evidence of gender theory or anti-racism” but knew that it was being taught to students. She told the Fox and Friends hosts that she was continuing to use the records request system to seek answers to more of her questions, but the school district was scheduled to meet about possible legal action over her request.

This kind of pushback from an elected board seems indefensible, but what Fox News didn’t report was that Solas had filed 160 public information requests that cost the district more than $10,000 to retrieve and print.

Book banning

A personal experience I had more than 20 years ago in Wappingers, N.Y., illustrates how the assignment of a controversial book can impact administrators.

A lone parent in the school district was upset with a book a high school teacher assigned in her daughter’s class, Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya. During the citizen participation portion of a school board’s meeting, the parent read a page from the book that she found particularly disgusting, a page that was full of profanity and sexual innuendos which, when taken out of context, seemed needlessly vulgar.

After her reading, she demanded that the board immediately take this book off the reading list and out of the library.

Targeting teachers

Teachers, though, are affected most by the legislation. A recent New York Times article described the experience of Justine Ang Fonte, a health and wellness teacher at Dalton School. Fonte, described in the Times headline as a “sex educator,” accepted an offer this past May to teach two Zoom sessions on “pornography literacy and consent” to 120 juniors and seniors at a Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on the Upper West Side. Following the class, two anonymous parents complained about the content of the lessons.

Then, the Times reported: “About a week later, she woke up to find herself featured in The New York Post: ‘Students and parents reel after class on “porn literacy,” ’ said the headline. That story was followed by another soon after: ‘Dalton parents enraged over “masturbation” videos for first graders.’ The articles included screen shots from Ms. Fonte’s lessons, a possibility in the Zoom-classroom world.

For the full article and additional details about the examples, follow this link.

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