It all started with an image in an art lesson and escalated to concerns over teachers' academic freedom

ZOOM - School board members and district staff listen and respond to nearly two and a half hours of public comments at their business meeting Oct. 15.

The community of Canby is a stir over the level of political speech teachers should be allowed to bring into the classroom (or virtual classroom). As such, the Canby School Board's agenda took a backseat to public comments at its business meeting on Thursday, Oct. 15.

There, 89 members of the public read comments or submitted comments for board Chair Angi Dilkes and Vice Chair Sara Magenheimer to read aloud.

District educators spoke in disappointment over the board's discussion at the previous meeting, many of them viewing it as undermining teachers.

On the contrary, many parents spoke in agreement with a few board members who had expressed that excessive political speech in classrooms should not be allowed.

Here is how it all came about.

The art lesson

It all started with an art lesson for middle-school students at Ninety-One School. The teacher presented a slideshow titled "What is art?" She flashed a series of images before students and asked them to decide yay or nay on whether each image represented art.

The takeaway, the teacher said according to email records, is that "art is subjective."

"You may not think it is art and you may not agree with the artist, but it's important to respect everyone's opinion," the teacher said in an email to the school principal after concerns were raised. "The creator is the one who gets to make their own definition of art."

(Image is Clickable Link) COURTESY PHOTO: CSD - This photo was one of many in an art lesson at Ninety-One School titled, 'What is art?' It's an image by artist and photographer Judy Gelles from her series 'Fourth Grade Project.'Among the pictures was the famous painting "The Starry Night" by Vincent van Gogh, a self-portrait by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and even a food creation featuring an imitation of a Kahlo painting.

One student took a screen shot of a single image from the slideshow and showed it to their parent. The image was of a Black child with his back to the camera, facing double doors. On each side of the boy were words which together read: "I worry about people in my family getting shot. My cousin got shot and died. I don't think anybody should carry a gun … even the cops. Then nobody would get shot."

The image is one piece from a series of photos called "Fourth Grade Project" by artist and photographer Judy Gelles. The words on her images were the children's responses to the same three questions: Who do you live with? What do you wish for? What do you worry about?

COURTESY PHOTO - This is another of Judy Gelles's images from her 'Fourth Grade Project.'The text on another of Gelles's portraits says, "I live with my mom and her boyfriend. My dad lives with his mom and three cousins. My half sister and half brother live with their mom. I wish my mom and dad and sister and brother would all live in one big house."

After viewing the lesson, Superintendent Trip Goodall wrote an email to Ninety-One School Principal Skyler Rodolph saying, "What a great lesson."

Rodolph agreed.

"I know … It's a great intro to art lesson," Rodolph said.

Depner escalates concern

Goodall and Rodolph were reviewing the lesson because the parent of the child who took the screenshot passed it along to school board member Dawn Depner.

"I use the word 'agenda' because this is what I refer to as propaganda and believe no teacher has the right discussing with a student or pushing their personal agenda via a classroom setting." — CSD board member Dawn Depner

Depner took the parent's concern directly to Goodall via an email on Sept. 18 in which she revealed her own disagreement with the image because U.S. citizens have the right to bear arms.

"I do not know the entire story on this as of yet but as you can see it's not difficult for students to 'snap' photos of what the teachers [sic] agenda looks like," Depner said in an email to Goodall with the Gelles image attached. "I use the word 'agenda' because this is what I refer to as propaganda and believe no teacher has the right discussing with a student or pushing their personal agenda via a classroom setting."

Goodall responded to Depner with his opinion that the photo does not condemn the second amendment and that it does not suggest the teacher is promoting anything political.

"It is expressing a common concern many children in this country experience and a concern Congress has been openly debating for the last 30 years," he said.

Depner pushed further, though, asking whether Principal Rodolph would follow up with the teacher of the lesson, to which Goodall answered that Rodolph had not heard from the parent.

"Whether or not the parent calls, I'd like to have MY concerns addressed," Depner said.

Depner then asked for the curriculum and all photos from the lesson, records show, and requested the topic be put on the board's agenda for the upcoming meeting on Oct. 1. She also revealed that she had shared the image with members of the community, and she said many were unhappy.

Indeed, public records reveal Depner had posted the image on Facebook on Sept. 18 in the Oregon, Parents' Rights in Education group, an organization that has in the past come under fire for its anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and for calling schools "morally toxic" and "indoctrination centers for students beginning in kindergarten."

The organization, under the leadership of Director Suzanne Gallagher, has also opposed the Black Lives Matter movement. In one post, Gallagher posted a story about Oregon Department of Education's recent passing of a resolution in support of Black Lives Matter.

"Oh, yeah!" Gallagher said along with the post. "ODE is promoting Marxism disguised as anti-racism!"

It was in this group that Depner posted the image from the art lesson and said, "Question — If your child's teacher showed them this picture via online distance learning, how upset would you be? This was presented to a local student and I find it outrageous."

Depner's post has since been removed.

But the word about the Gelles image spread.

Letters and complaints from citizens and parents who did not have students in the art class started rolling in to district staff and board members, records show. One parent, whose name was redacted, even threatened to remove their students from the school district and filed a formal complaint.

Rodolph responded to the formal complaint, finding that the lesson did not constitute a violation of policy nor teaching standards of practice.

The parent then replied that they would in fact pull their children out of Ninety-One School and Canby High School and intended to use the situation in Canby as an example to urge more parents to pull their children out of public schools.

Board member stances become apparent Oct. 1

With board member Stefani Carlson's second that the board discuss political speech in school, Depner's request came true, and the topic was added to the Oct. 1 board meeting agenda.

But at the meeting, after consulting policy and the Oregon School Boards Association legal counsel, Chair Dilkes facilitated a broad conversation on political speech in schools and the specific lesson was not discussed. So a few board members, who had not been a part of email conversations, were in the dark on Depner's specific concern.

Still, each board member's stance became clear.

Depner, Carlson and Tom Scott insisted on policy change to restrict excessive political speech in schools.

"My concern, which I'm hearing from a lot of board members, is there's really unnecessary use of politically-charged items in lessons, and it's happening," Scott said. "I've also been sent items that prove it's been happening, and I find it completely unnecessary in our educational system. Honestly, my concern is there's obviously — politically right now — there's huge division. I think what happens with this is, I don't want to see what happened nationally happen in our community and create a division within our schools and our families; it's unnecessary."

Prior to the meeting, Scott had exchanged emails with Depner and with Goodall, expressing that the Gelles image was "unacceptable" and "inappropriate."

Canby School District does have policies that address instruction, including the "Controversial Issues" policy, which states in part:

"Controversial issues shall not be avoided nor raised simply because the issue is of a controversial nature. The teacher is expected to remain in control of the discussion at all times and to insure [sic] that the issues are related to the curriculum and are appropriate to the students' intellectual and emotional maturity. … The teacher's role in discussion of controversial issues is that of an impartial guide, aiding students in the process of formulating decisions by providing relevant materials and maintaining an atmosphere free from bias and prejudice."

This topic is also addressed on page 10 of the classified staff contract, which can only be changed during bargaining. The contract has an "Academic Freedom" clause, which states in full:

"The Association and the District acknowledge the fundamental need to protect teachers from any censorship or restraint which interferes with the obligation to perform their prescribed teaching function."

Beyond instructional policy and contractual language, though, at the meeting Depner argued that board members should have the ability to address parent concerns, she said, "whether or not procedures and protocols are followed."

Board complaint policy dictates that a complaint should be brought first to the employee involved, and if it cannot be resolved, the complaint should move up the chain of command — the administrator, the superintendent and the board — one step at a time until it can be resolved.

Board members Magenheimer and Rob Sheveland remained impartial and expressed openness to review policy.

"I trust our teachers. I trust our staff. I trust our administrators. I trust our superintendent." — CSD Board Chair Angi Dilkes

Dilkes admitted her opinions differ from those of other members.

"I believe strongly in academic freedom for teachers, and I feel comfortable as a member of the board with the processes that are available to people, both parents and members of the public, to elevate a concern," Dilkes said. "I trust our teachers. I trust our staff. I trust our administrators. I trust our superintendent. And I know that we are at the end of the day, things can be elevated to us. So, for me, I am very comfortable with what we have today."

Board member Mike Zagyva was outspoken, making one statement that would be quoted repeatedly in the meeting to follow.

"As a building principal, as a former social studies teacher," he said, "my position has been clear: it's a teacher's job to teach students how to think, not what to think; that's the parents' job."

Ultimately, Zagyva agreed with Dilkes, saying he was also comfortable with policy as it is.

Backlash at Oct. 15 board meeting

The conversations at the Oct. 1 meeting struck a chord with the public and with educators, who showed up en masse to the next virtual meeting to say their piece.

It was clear, based on repetition of word-for-word statements, that many of the comments from both the educators and the parents were scripted, apparently based off a template that had been sent out ahead of time.

"This discussion was not about political speech but about topics, images and articles, taken out of context, that struck a nerve with some people. There's a difference."

One common chime from teachers was, "This discussion was not about political speech but about topics, images and articles, taken out of context, that struck a nerve with some people. There's a difference."

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Others had more personal statements to make.

"I can't help but wonder if the reason the lesson artifact in question drew such a dramatic response is because it represented the views of a historically underserved community," said Ninety-One School teacher Anna Digby. "I would remind you that the creed of the Canby School District is 'All students. All Abilities. All opportunities' — calling the presence of people such as Black, Indigenous and people of color or lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender and queer people and their stories in curriculum 'politically charged' in an effort to censor their voices is unacceptable."

She added, "Your job is to support the education of Canby students, not put teachers on trial."

Other teachers expressed that they felt unsupported and used terms like "appalled," "shocked," "disturbing" and more to describe conversations on Oct. 1.

Another Ninety-One teacher, Abbie Perrin, suggested parents ought to speak up about their concerns and follow the proper channels.

"Board members, however, do not get to just publicly question individual teachers," Perrin said. "This is not Canby Now." (Canby Now is a community Facebook page).

It wasn't just teachers who spoke up; school counselors also piped in.

"There are so many things that the school board could be doing right now to support students, staff and families," Baker Prairie counselor Kate Shively said. "This isn't one of them."

Many parents argued that the Gelles image does not constitute art and is instead "inappropriate" and "offensive propaganda."

One parent even brought up a comparable, hypothetical image to provoke thought, though it differs from the Gelles image in the sense that the proposed words are not the actual words of the one pictured.

"If this picture is considered 'art,'" parent Sherry Smith said, "would it also be considered 'art' if a teacher put up a picture of a fetus that said, 'I worry about women killing their babies. My cousin was aborted and died. I don't think any woman should abort their baby … even rape victims. Then no baby would get aborted'?"

Smith suggested neither the Gelles image nor the hypothetical image belong in classrooms.

"I am also hearing that some of them actually treat the conservative kids poorly if they do not agree with their mindset." – Lori Boatright

Canby resident Lori Boatright said she is a gun club member and suggested the image goes against citizens' second amendment rights. She made further claims about what she believes is happening in the schools.

"The children today don't know how to reason or think because the teachers are pushing one side of a story and not giving the benefit to ask questions from the other side," Boatright said. "I am also hearing that some of them actually treat the conservative kids poorly if they do not agree with their mindset. Our test scores in Canby have gone down drastically from when my children were attending school. I would think that maybe if we spent more time on the basics and less on the politics and other items listed above these would improve."

After about two-and-a-half hours of public comments, the superintendent and board members had the opportunity to make their own statements.

COURTESY PHOTO: PRIE - This is an image of a T-shirt that Canby summer school teachers reportedly had to wear for photos.When Carlson's turn came, she noted that there have been more concerns around this issue than just the Gelles picture — "far more," she said.

Prior to the meeting, Carlson had shared what she labeled "a sampling" of some of these concerns with Zagyva via email. Included in her sampling, per email records, is an apparent student drawing of a person wearing a shirt that says, "I Can't Breathe," wearing a face mask that says, "BLM," and holding a sign that says, "Black Lives Matter." She also included a screenshot of a teacher response note that praises two of the students' pieces and says, "your BLM one is my favorite."

She also shared with Zagyva an image of a T-shirt that summer teachers apparently had to wear for pictures that says, "Unidos por la paz, equidad y justicia. United for peace, equity and justice. Black Lives Matter." The same image of this T-shirt also appeared in a post from Gallagher on the Parents' Rights page. Both Carlson's and Gallagher's shots of the T-shirt had "7 of 7" captioned above.

Carlson also shared a bit about her reasoning behind participating in these discussions.

"We are called to protect our kids, and I take that call very seriously," Carlson said. "When I see things that are going on that could jeopardize their protection, I feel a deep conviction to call it out and bring it into the light."

Depner expressed concern about retaliation for students who speak their opinions and even for herself.

"In fact, being a board member and asking questions has made me feel very uncomfortable," Depner said. "It has disrupted my ability to work, to focus on my family and to sleep. Why? Because I too fear backlash for stating an opinion."

Scott offered a proposed solution: continuing conversations with the intent to listen from both sides. Zagyva suggested a revitalization of district site councils — groups at each school made of parents and educators working together.

"I'm sure we'll continue this conversation going forward," Dilkes said to end that portion of the meeting.

The Canby School District public records that helped informed this story are available in full, here: Public Records 1, Public Records 2

Kristen Wohlers
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