Amidst schools around America embracing support for Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ+ communities, the Washoe County School District (WCSD) insists BLM in schools constitutes political activity and should not be allowed.
WCSD finds itself at a crossroads with a 1997 directive–called board policy 1310 “Political Activity in Schools”–as students, parents, teachers and even some trustees continue to question the interpretation of the policy.
WCSD is interpreting 1310 as preventing teachers from supporting, showing solidarity or even talking about current social movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), LGBTQ+ issues and rainbow flags in their professional capacity, unless otherwise specified by the school district.
For months, students and teachers have been appealing and urging the board to revise the policy. They say informing students about current affairs, including race, gender and discrimination, is what they expect from schools.
Schools nationally allow Black Lives Matter in classrooms; here in Washoe County, the district’s legal interpretation of its policy is that overt support for Black Lives Matter, particularly by teachers, constitutes political activity and therefore should be barred from campuses.
Many say that interpretation is flawed, outdated and inconsistent with what is happening in the rest of the country.
Why is interpretation of 1310 confusing?
Early this month, WCSD passed an anti-racism motion unanimously. Still, it continues to define the BLM movement and LGBTQ+ issues as “political,” and thus, improper topics for classroom and student-teacher discussion. It was not clear during several board meetings where trustees have discussed the policy why the district has defined these issues as “political.”
A reading of the board policy does not unearth that the policy prohibits discussion of these issues. In fact, under the Permissible Activities within the policy, “instructional discussion of current events, which includes historical and current political races, elections,” and more, when “delivered in a fair, unbiased fashion and in alignment with the Nevada Academic Content Standards and other District policies” is allowed.
What 1310 does, however, is restrict or prohibit teachers from discussing or supporting partisan politics. The board seems to have taken that leaf out of the document and defined BLM and LGBTQ+ issues as partisan politics.
This Is Reno reached out to the school district for comment for this story but did not receive a response.
Emails between trustees Katy Simon Holland and Andrew Caudill and Jay Kolbet-Clausell, a Reno social worker and a former school district student, sheds light on the school district’s definition of BLM as a political issue.
In a Nov. 8 email to Kolbet-Clausell, Caudill pointed out that because BLM is a political action committee, the issue cannot be discussed at schools.
“At issue is our legal counsel’s opinion that advocacy for the capitalized Black Lives Matter movement is political advocacy, which is not appropriate in a mandated public school classroom,” Simon Holland said.
In response, Kolbet-Clausell wrote, “There are Political Action Committees for everything: homeownership, banking, transportation, justice in general, or even teachers! Teachers aren’t allowed to say much if they are not allowed to cover anything with a PAC.”
The Empower Nevada Teachers group, which engages in political advocacy, such as at the Nevada Legislature and a protest attended by hundreds last summer, has teachers wearing red T-shirts in schools on Wednesdays.
The district’s legal counsel Neil Rombardo, however, echoed the trustees’ words during the Nov. 10 board meeting. However, his responses did not make the district’s definition of “political activity” clear, prompting Trustee Angela Taylor to comment that there is a need for clarity on the matter.
Teachers, parents, students and public commenter after public commenter questioned the school district’s intent on the issue during the board meeting at Galena High School. The tension in the discussions was evident.
The carefully crafted words of the trustees, legal counsel, trembling voices of students, teachers and advocates from local nonprofits made it clear that beneath the surface of cordiality and cooperation, there was an ongoing struggle between old conventions and new convictions.
Rombardo said demands for the review of this policy have been made before, but “we have never changed anything.” He maintained that even though the school district is sympathetic to the calls for equity, there could be legal challenges in allowing teachers to support the issues.
The trustees, though, passed an unanimous motion by Taylor to review board policy 1310 “specifically looking at purpose, definition… with an examination of how other districts are showing support for marginalized students as relates to political activity in school.”
What are the challenges?
Hours long in-person discussions at several board meetings and email communications between the district and people from the community show that the district is anticipating three main challenges: the slippery slope, freedom of speech and the potential for lawsuits.
“If we pick one we will have to allow it all.” These are the words of legal counsel Rombardo, who is of the opinion that if the teachers are allowed to discuss and support the BLM movement, rainbow flags and LGBTQ+ issues, the school district will be required to also allow Confederate flags, pro-choice or pro-life ideas, by default.
However, students and teachers believe differently.
“This is a ‘false double-standard’,” said Hanna Branch, a senior in Wooster High School’s International Baccalaureate program. Branch is also a founding member of Washoe County School District Students for Change.
“While we can’t and shouldn’t fly the Confederate flag, we can fly the American flag. One is hateful and the other is not. That is a precedent,” she added.
Rombardo accepted after more discussions that it might be possible to carve out an exception if the school district is able to make a case of why the BLM movement and LGBTQ+ issues should be supported.
“Allowing teachers to show support of these issues can be justified by intent,” said Phil Kaiser during the meeting. Kaiser is a teacher at McQueen High School. “[It’s] intent to support marginalized groups that have faced discriminations, bullying, assault and death. 400 years ago the first slaves were sold in Jamestown. So, we need to show support to these students.”
Teachers’ First Amendment rights questioned
Rombardo also said that the First Amendment rights of teachers are limited.
“We don’t need to pick up the speech we like,” he said, since the school district is a government entity.
A public comment by David Gamble Jr., however, called this interpretation faulty.
Gamble, a local attorney, said this “a gross oversimplification of the public employee speech regulation regime laid out in a series of Supreme Court decisions over a number of decades, one of the most recent being Lane v. Franks in 2014.
“The Supreme Court has stated not that public employees ‘do not have First Amendment protection,’ but rather has stated the circumstances under which a public employer may regulate employee speech while the employee acts in her official capacity,” he added. “The phrasing of WCSD’s statement, authoritarian in its nature, is also an alarming foreclosure of open and honest discourse where it is arguably needed most: our children’s schools.”
Trustee Caudill said that allowing discussion of BLM and LGBTQ+ issues might also attract litigation against the district. He predicted that the school district would probably lose the legal battles and will have to bear costly lawsuits at the expense of taxpayer money. WCSD is already embroiled in costly legal actions and has threatened to take This Is Reno to court, alleging defamation.
Amid the impassioned debates, trustees and the legal counsel stressed if certain topics become a part of the curriculum, the school can have discussions without being intimidated by the fear of potential litigation. They also said that a curriculum is being made and will be available next year.
BLM is in schools around the country
On Nov. 12, during a virtual Black Caucus by Washoe Dems, Lily Baran, a former music teacher, community organizer and former WCSD student, was scathing in her remarks about the board meeting, which she attended.
“In Nevada we feel like we have to reinvent the wheel,” Baran said, commenting on the fact that several other school districts have supported the BLM movement. “We can just learn from them.”
Baran mentioned the Berkeley, California school district and the Buffalo, New York school district, both of which did a BLM week at an elementary level. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin public school district did a National Black Lives Matter Week of Action, Feb. 4–8. Indiana had something similar.
Georgia’s Dekalb County school district plans to hold a Black Lives Matter week. Scarborough public school in Maine, and many other schools, are allowing BLM movement related programs.
There are a number of educational resources available nationally for Black Lives Matter in schools.
In 2017, the Rochester Teachers Association and School District passed a resolution for Black Lives Matter in schools.
“The Rochester Teachers Association and the Rochester City School District seek to address institutionalized racism in our schools and to offer spaces for dialogue among school staff by supporting and facilitating professional development work related to race and other challenging topics,” the resolution read, in part.
The Prince George County Board of Education, in Maryland, passed a similar resolution in 2018 that specifically endorsed and encouraged “teachers and students to participate in the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools…”
Several national organizations have already developed Black Lives Matter Week of Action kits for schools and educators. The kits include proposed curriculum, lessons and lesson plans, teaching strategies and printable resources. Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offers workshops as well, providing virtual anti-bias and social justice training for educators and district administrators.
Closer to home, a school in Truckee, California that Baran’s son attends, made a priority to discuss human rights issues in class when George Floyd was murdered by police last May in Minneapolis.
“I am pretty sure my child is the only Black child in his class,” among a majority of white students, but they still made that a priority, she said. “[Washoe County] School District officials didn’t do the research.”
Most WCSD trustees did not even seem engaged in the very important conversations as they were scrolling through their phones, she added. “They were vastly underprepared… They should take a slice of humble pie and listen to the children and constituents who have done the research.”
Tiffany Young, director of equity and diversity at WCSD, also attended the caucus and said that the school district is trying, but there are hurdles that stretch beyond its capacity. For one, even though more than half of its student population are students of color from Hispanic, Asian and multi-racial parents, Black students are a minority.
“It’s a tough thing to be a minority in Reno,” Young said. “I am trying to weed through the system and support Black students. Some people might think it’s ‘insignificant’ but it matters. It is a heavy weight to fight the policy. Know that I am internally fighting and working several matters.”
Washoe School Superintendent Kristen McNeill has maintained for months that board policy 1310, though, curbs freedom of teachers and does not affect students.
Students in the school district have “a great amount of academic freedom, a great amount of political speech freedom, so long as that political speech is not harmful or detrimental to what is happening in the classroom,” she said during the November board meeting.
But former and current students do not see merit in freedom for students without freedom for teachers to discuss or guide the students about their experiences.
Former student Kolbet-Clausell said that while he was a student he struggled as a non-binary gay individual because he received no support from the district.
He said he went through “really really challenging years trying to stay safe and learn who I was. If I only knew that there were gay people in the world who have rights, I think that would have made a huge difference for me… It’s really sad looking back.”
There were teachers from the LGBTQ+ communities, he said, but they weren’t allowed to own their identities in their official roles.
“Back then if I had known that there are role models out there, I would have had a much better life,” he explained.
He also talked about an “intense speech therapy” program for having a lisp where there were other kids.
“Twenty five years later, I have learned that almost every kid in that speech therapy class was gay. And so, they [WCSD] knew we were there but they didn’t let [students] know,” he said.
Kolbet-Clausell feels that current students are fighting WCSD’s same decades-old “terrible culture” that’s stacked up against minority students.
“I am actually angry that they will have to fight for that. A lot of these issues should be settled by now. I don’t think that’s fair,” he added. “How terrible that we can’t just accept them and let them explore who they are, instead of [them] having to fight for their rights.”
Sudhiti (Shu) Naskar is a multimedia journalist and researcher who has years of experience covering international issues. In the role of a journalist, she has covered gender, culture, society, environment, and economy. Her works have appeared on BBC, The National, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Reno Gazette-Journal, Caravan and more. Her interests lie in the intersection of art, politics, social justice, education, tech, and culture. She took a sabbatical from media to attend graduate school at the University of Nevada Reno in 2017. In this period, she has won awards, represented her school at an international conference and successfully defended her thesis on political disinformation at the Reynolds School of Journalism where she earned her Master’s in Media Innovation.