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Teaching controversy?

A task force assigned to study the teaching of controversial issues within Snoqualmie Valley schools will present its findings to the community on Monday, June 9.

Mount Si High School Principal Randy Taylor asked social studies teacher Jerry Bopp to assemble the task force in the wake of the school’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day assembly, during which two teachers protested against an invited speaker known for his anti-gay-rights views.

Following that event, a number of parents and community members forming the Coalition to Defend Education (CoDE) claimed teachers and staff had been pushing their personal political opinions onto students in violation of school district policy.

When Bopp was assigned to head the task force, he interviewed some students about how their teachers presented controversial issues, which can range from evolution to the Iraq War; some students said that some staff needed to be more careful with their approach.

“One thing I am confident about is that there is a larger need for this presentation than merely the assembly,” Bopp said.

Bopp’s diverse 12-person task force of school staff and community members studied district policy, which states that while teachers may share their personal viewpoints with students, they must first present multiple perspectives on the issue. They compared it with other districts’ policies, and put together a presentation to help educators understand best practices for teaching controversial issues. The task force put on a two-hour workshop for school staff on Friday, May 2, which Bopp said was well received by staff members, many of whom had been unclear on district policy.

“The workshop gave staff time to respond to certain situations, say how they’ve done it in the past, how they might do it in the future, and talk about errors they’ve made,” Bopp said.

In Bopp’s 13-plus years of teaching, he had never been to training on how to teach the controversial issues that so frequently come up in social studies classes.

Studying the policy has “kind of changed how I will approach things,” Bopp said. “I’ll be more circumspect about getting my views out. But I always have been. I think a lot of kids here know my politics; they also know they can argue with me — I like to argue.”

School board member Caroline Loudenback, who served as the board’s liaison to the task force, said that teachers should be able to share their opinions — they just need to be careful about how they do it.

“Controversial issues are emotional, and so certain issues may be harder for teachers to follow guidelines when they’re passionate about an issue,” she said. “The training the task force did gives teachers some helpful techniques to deal with that. It’s more tools in their toolbox.”

Though the task force may make suggestions for minor edits in the district policy, Bopp said the group by and large agreed with the way the code protects students.

Loudenback said she hoped the task force’s presentation would help the community move on from the MLK assembly fallout and come together in a productive way.

“Hopefully parents are going to see that we are doing something and that people do care. Everybody has a twisted view of what life at Mount Si is like,” she said, adding that when she visits the school, “I’m seeing great things happen.”

“Now that we have parents paying attention, I hope that they start finding a positive way to get involved, and will see that we have great kids and teachers,” she said. “Giving people tools to do things right will help us move forward.”

• The Snoqualmie Valley School District’s policy for teaching controversial issues is available online at www.svsd410.org/districtinfo/board/policies/2000/2331--teaching_of_controversial_issues.html.

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