The language of an addition to the Newberg school board's controversial policy banning political displays in local schools, including Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ Pride symbols, was finalized Sept. 9 by the board's policy committee.
The language was written by attorney Ty Smith, added as legal counsel by the board prior to a special session Aug. 24, and includes blanket language that some in district administration have warned is neither the proper format for an official policy nor likely to pass legal muster.
The proposed language was passed 2-1 by the committee of vice-chairman Brian Shannon and directors Trevor DeHart and Rebecca Piros in an unusual procedural maneuver. Piros was the lone "no" vote and said the policy committee typically discusses policy, makes amendments as needed and then proposes it to the full board.
"We don't vote on this," Piros insisted.
The proposal will now progress to the full seven-person school board for consideration as early as its next official meeting slated for Sept. 14.
While Piros fought the politically conservative majority on the committee over the details of the proposal, it advanced with little effort. Shannon primarily spoke in favor of the policy change, while DeHart limited his input to questions about board procedures before voting in line with Shannon.
The language accepted by the board's committee is broad and complicated.
"No district employee shall, while acting within the scope of their employment, either during school hours, or inside their physical area of responsibility at a school (such as a classroom, meeting room, desk area) hang, post, erect or otherwise display … any posters, signs, flags, banners, pictures or other digital or physical image that depicts support or opposition relating to a political, quasi-political or controversial topic," the proposed policy language reads.
"For purposes of this policy, a controversial topic shall be defined as one that a professional educator could reasonably understand to have students on more than one side of said issue. For purposes of this policy, a political or quasi-political topic includes contemporary issues being debated in the local, state or national political climate."
It is unclear in the proposal what constitutes a political, quasi-political or controversial topic and the exceptions to the policy don't appear to cover every aspect of a students' classroom experience. The full list of exceptions and full language of the proposal is available at Newberg.k12.or.us under the district tab, followed by the link to meetings and agendas.
One line among the policy's exceptions seems of particular importance, considering the board is facing multiple lawsuits from the local teachers' union and, potentially, the American Civil Liberties Union: "This policy does not restrict in any way district employees' First Amendment rights when not speaking in their official capacity, nor while not on the job or if they are not using a forum provided exclusively to them as an employee, or otherwise speaking on behalf of the district."
The legal questions about this policy and of the previous directive to Superintendent Joe Morelock to carry out the ban on political symbols remain. There also was an issue of clarity when it came to the policy's wording, how it might be enforced and how wide its application will be as definitions differ on the meaning of "political" and "controversial."
During the Sept. 9 meeting, Morelock also pointed out that Smith wrote the policy as a resolution and not in the format board policies are required to be constructed. The policy would theoretically be tacked onto the board's existing policy, Policy GBG, which covers political activities on the part of school staff, and it would not apply to students directly.
Smith originally wrote the policy as an addition to Policy GBC, which covers primarily financial ethics on the part of school staff. Morelock noted that Policy GBC is in no way related to this proposed addition. Whether director Shannon or Smith knew the difference between GBG and GBC was unclear, nor is it clear whether the policy coming before the board Sept. 14 would apply specifically to GBG or GBC.
Semantics and acronyms and proposed policy details aside, the full school board will now deliberate and eventually vote on whether to add this ban on political symbols and displays to district policy.
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