School board approves opt-out policy

The revised opt-out policy originally written by trustee Sandee Everett and edited in conjunction with teachers and administrators was passed with a 3-1 vote at the CVUSD school board meeting on Nov. 14. Board members Mike Dunn, Everett, and John Andersen voted in favor of the proposal, with Betsy Connolly voting against, and Pat Phelps absent from the meeting.

The board meeting, lasting from 5:00 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., was packed with students, teachers, and concerned parents. Many students and community members also participated in a protest against the policy prior to the meeting.

As proposed by a committee of teachers, administrators, and school staff to the Ad Hoc committee of Pat Phelps and Sandee Everett, the original opt-out policy aimed to provide an alternative for students whose parents decide that the curriculum content is not suitable or appropriate for their children. The policy was supposed to be reviewed by the Ad Hoc committee, revised and edited as a group effort, and then put forth towards the school board, for a vote.

The original teacher-written policy outlined ways for parents to choose to opt their children out by including a list of books that would be read in the class on the take-home syllabus, along with a district alternative assignment letter outlining opt-out policies and procedures.

In her policy, Everett proposed a more parentally involved process including a parent review panel for possibly controversial books, along with a list of books to be read in class. As of now, the policy allows for each board member to choose two community members to be part of the panel, from a pool of applicants.
If this committee doesn’t like the book, then that opinion will be shared with the board and public when the book comes before the board for approval,” said Connolly in an email. This aspect of Everett’s policy was not included in Superintendent committee’s original plan.  

Another key point that Everett added to the policy just before its proposal was that “the​ ​primary​ ​considerations​ ​when​ ​selecting​ ​instructional​ ​materials​ ​should​ ​be​ ​their educational​ ​value,​ ​relevance​ ​and​ ​age-appropriate​ ​nature.”

She also emphasized the incorporation of an asterisk next to each book on the list that is flagged by the California Department of Education as containing mature content such as rape, violence, or themes of depression. It is not clear whether this aspect, along with others, will remain in the policy, as the final language is still undecided.

Some community members have questioned whether or not the use of this asterisk is necessary. “The language about adult books and mature themes on the Recommended Reading List was never meant to be used to discourage these books from being read by students,” Mary Anne Van Zuyle, community member, said at the recent board meeting.

Others perceived the controversy as having been blown to unnecessary proportions. “Forgive the oversimplification, but I think this is what it came down to,” John Federoff, community member, said, holding up a large metal asterisk.“ I’m not sure why the asterisk is so controversial.”

Jill Magnante, English teacher at NPHS and member of the original Superintendent’s Ad Hoc committee, has followed the evolution of Everett’s opt-out policy since its original introduction. “I don’t think any teacher is in favor of putting asterisks on books,” Magnante said. “What we’re doing is we are somehow flagging some books over others. We encourage families to learn more any way they see fit, but the asterisk is a philosophical divide.”

Everett declined to comment on the specifics of the new policy, but the the version discussed at the recent meeting included implementation of a more rigorous teacher approval process for desired class texts.
“No, it’s not a book ban, but that doesn’t mean that the procedures aren’t different,” Magnante said. “It remains to be seen if those procedures create a process that becomes so arduous that teachers won’t propose new books.”

Although the legality of the opt-out proposal process is under scrutiny from those opposed to the policy, Magnante acknowledges that there is an effort for middle ground to be found. “I’m grateful that Mrs. Everett was willing to make amendments.”

The division in perspective on the policy and its limits have impacted the way that students and teachers hold themselves in the community. “This became a battle of who cares the most, and so many teachers have felt demoralized and their integrity has been questioned in this process,” Magnante said. “Wherever this policy comes out at the end, there are relationships that need to be repaired.”