Opinion: Protecting a teacher’s citizen rights and freedom to teach

By Dr. Alan Singer

News 12 Long Island reported last week that some Rockville Centre parents had accused a high school social studies teacher of expressing anti-police opinions in class. The parents want her reprimanded for expressing views in class that they do not like. The district superintendent, without referring to the specific incident, wrote to parents, “Lessons and activities that create divisiveness or that marginalize anyone have no place in our schools.”

The teacher did not call for defunding police departments or attack police officers. She shared documents that engaged students in a discussion of police actions after the Derek Chauvin verdict was announced. The document that made parents particularly upset listed statistics of police involvement in the death of young Black men.

The district superintendent is right that no lessons should marginalize a racial, ethnic or religious group, but it had better be OK to “marginalize” neo-Nazis and white nationalism. If the superintendent’s policy were implemented, that would mean eliminating from discussion any controversial issue that might challenge students to think, like women’s reproductive rights, racism in American society, climate change denial or citizenship opportunities for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients. It would allow a small group of parents to censor the curriculum, intimidate teachers into silence and cripple the education of students.

The irony is that the Rockville Centre teacher was following guidelines explicitly outlined in the New York State social studies framework. An essential component of social studies teaching is having students “respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims and evidence made on all sides of an issue, and resolve contradictions when possible; determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation or complete the task.”

In addition, according to the framework, students should learn that:

  • “In engaging in issues of civic debate, citizens act with an appreciation of differences and are able to participate in constructive dialogue with those who hold different perspectives.”
  • “While the United States legal system aims to uphold the values of equality before the law, due process, human dignity, freedom of conscience, inalienable rights and civility, the extent to which the legal system upholds these values in practice is an issue of ongoing civic debate.”
  • “Citizens should be informed about rights and freedoms and committed to balancing personal liberties with a social responsibility to others.”
  • “Citizens participate in civic life through volunteerism and advocacy, including efforts such as contacting elected officials, signing/organizing petitions, protesting, canvassing and participating in/organizing boycotts.”

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at South Side High School in March 1968. Would he be banned today because his ideas on racism, militarism and poverty would make some parents uncomfortable?

Recently, other cases involving teachers’ rights and responsibilities have been in the news. In San Clemente, Calif., a fourth-grade teacher was investigated after she participated in the Jan. 6 protest at the Capitol. The teacher was temporarily suspended and then reinstated after an investigation found there was no evidence that she acted illegally in Washington, D.C. or that she brought her political views into the classroom. I think her conspiracy theory politics are crazy, but she has the right to be a teacher. The same principles that protect her also protect the teacher in Rockville Centre.

The Oneonta School District in upstate New York has a somewhat different issue that officials there are trying to sort out. Former students reported that a middle school social studies teacher gave them the finger and screamed obscenities when he drove by local residents protesting against the police shooting of a young African-American man. This case is difficult because the teacher was acting, no matter how reprehensibly, as a private citizen. The district is now investigating the teacher, and among other things, whether there is evidence that his political views creep into his teaching, with students reporting that in lessons on the U.S. Civil War, he denied slavery played any role.

If the accusations about his teaching are substantiated, the teacher is directly contradicting the New York State framework that reads, “Westward expansion, the industrialization of the North and the increase of slavery in the South contributed to the growth of sectionalism. Constitutional conflicts between advocates of states’ rights and supporters of federal power increased tensions in the nation; attempts to compromise ultimately failed to keep the nation together, leading to the Civil War.”

In a joint statement, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP and a school board vice president said, “We are disheartened to hear of the allegations that an Oneonta City School District teacher drove by the demonstration in Muller Plaza on Sunday, yelling obscenities and flipping off the crowd . . . While people have the right to disagree with the demonstrators, it is important that those who work for the OCSD remember that while they are entitled to their opinions, they represent the district, and their actions reflect on their competency in the classroom.”

This teacher is entitled to due process, but he should have been investigated a long time ago. School administrators need to examine his lesson plans and monitor his teaching. If the district finds that racism not only shapes his politics, which is his right, but also affects how he teaches, he should be removed from the classroom, and New York State should suspend his teaching certification.

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. He is the author of “Teaching Global History” (Routledge, 2011), “New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth” (SUNY Press, Excelsior Editions, 2008) and “Education Flashpoints, Fighting for America’s Schools” (Routledge 2014), among other publications.