FISHERS, Ind. (WISH) — More than 1,000 people have signed an online petition calling for Hamilton Southeastern Schools Superintendent Allen Bourff to step down.
They’re criticizing how he wants the Black Lives Matter Movement addressed in classrooms.
The petition created by parent Amber Welch calls for Bourff’s replacement to be, in her words, someone of higher character, preferably a person of color. Welch also said current events and history need to be taught from a more honest perspective.
An email Bourff sent to faculty surfaced on an a Hamilton Southeastern parent Facebook page. Welch said the part where Bourff called the Black Lives Matter Movement political bothered several parents.
“I have heard from a number of parents who are concerned that we are advancing the cause of Black Lives Matter, a political movement within the country. They contend that their children are being indoctrinated rather than taught and that this effort has been a distraction from the academic purpose of school. Where is the line between teaching about a political movement and promoting that political movement? Before we go forward, let us suspend the argument that Black Lives Matter is a social issue, or concept rather than a political movement. If we can for the sake of discussion that it is a political issue, then my question takes on a great deal of significance, because as school officials we cannot expose our politics, and we cannot advance a political cause through our work with students. However, to teach students the origins of a political cause is to explore social concepts and events that brought it to the political arena. To teacher students the implications of a current political cause is to examine with them how social concepts or issues framed or have helped to frame it.
“This practice is neither novel nor unique to HSE. For many years, teachers here and across the country have been leading students through discussions, research, debates, and book studies on issues such as women’s suffrage, the Abolitionist movement, immigration, abortion, drug abuse, and preservation of the environment. For more than two decades we have studied a bold political movement that change the world … the American Revolution.
“Moreover, in recent years, The Indiana Academic Standards have been revised to include the following: ‘Explain the efforts of African Americans, Native Americans, LatinX, and LGBTQ, communities to assert their social and civil rights.’
“Academic knowledge is crystalized when it can be applied to issues, events, or causes beyond the classroom. One of the purposes of academic preparation in the public schools is to equip students to assume their place as citizens in their community, as well as the world. We are confident that our students will become contribution citizens of the world, and preparing them by examining political issues is but one means of preparing them for their role.
“But again, I raise the question of where that line is between teaching and promoting. Jennifer Hitchcock, who teacher AP Government and Politics for the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia suggests the following strategies when teaching about political issues:
“Plan your outcome. Decide in advance key outcomes. How does this connect to your course? What do you plan to achieve? How will you structure and evaluate the experience? How long can you spare? What do you want students to be able to do? Is it appropriate to share this learning external to your class in some way to promote student efficacy? Can you bring in external experts, maybe from your school or community?
“Build a foundation. Survey the political issue for firm connections to content, curating the underlying curriculum so that your direct instruction naturally supports further student inquiry. The presentation of that content may be through large-group discussions, recorded lecture, targeted readings, and things of the like.
“Allow students to dive deeper. The critical work is that students do their own research. Research is a skill that is necessary from the hard sciences to the humanities. A great resource to use is a school librarian, who may be able to discuss news-literacy skills and present academic databases. In addition to these resources, students may also want to bring news-media or social- media reporting into the discussion to allow for comparison.
“Facilitate student ownership. Enabling student dialogue and deliberation is democratic work. Structure debates, interviews, mock trials, fishbowls, and small-group dialogues allow students to process their research in the context of the foundational instruction. Here, reflection is more important than consensus. Students should produce a snapshot of their thinking as it evolves in the student dialogue that may be helpful in directing debriefs.
“Consider further action. Democratic skills should aim to terminate in concrete action. This could range from less time-intensive activities like creating informative social-media campaigns or writing a letter to a newspaper or policymaker to far more intensive endeavors. There are many organizations that provide materials to help teachers try these activities in class. Look to organizations like Generation Citizen’s Civics Day or Action Civics, the Civic Action Project from the Constitutional Rights Foundation, Mikva Challenge, Civics Unplugged, and Youth As Civics Experts. If this is too far toward a civics class, look to what your students can do inside of your own content that galvanizes the relationship between your class and how it is applied in our communities.
“If you are interested in reading further, this appeared in an Ed Week article on October 12, 2020, and it was titled ‘Politics Belongs in the Classroom.’
“It is not our place as educators to advance political causes. I said at the onset of this message that there is disagreement as to whether Black Lives Matter is a social issue or a political issue. It is clear that many have moved it to the political arena and contend that teachers should not be promoting it. I am requesting that if you work with the topic, treat it as a political issue, and as you do with other political issues, teach it without advancing it or promoting your personal views.
“This is a trying time for the world, and to be an educator does not shield us from the difficulties. In fact, because you are exposed to the stressors of the many families with whom you work, I contend that you may have challenges multiplied by a factor equal to the number of your students — both in-person and virtual. My purpose in sending the above message is to prevent one more stressful issue from distracting you from your daily mission. I conclude with a sincere thank you to each of you.
Welch said, “This is not who we want to be as a district, this is not how I want my children as a parent, to be taught is an acceptable way to approach a subject and life is not a political issue.”
The parent said discussing the issue with faculty and students would have been a perfect opportunity for Hamilton Southeastern to use its equity officer. “Don’t just hire someone in that position to be able to say ‘oh HSE has an equity officer’ she is so valuable of a resource,” Welch said.
The superintendent apologized to faculty in a follow up email:
“Black Lives Matter.
“At Hamilton Southeastern Schools, we will not debate the humanity of any individual.
“We have emphasized that Black Lives Matter, and this remains an emphasis in our equity work as we move towards creating and sustaining safe places for our students to learn and teachers to teach.
“The intent of yesterday’s letter to the faculty was designed to provide instructional strategies to discuss and teach Black Lives Matter, one of the most significant issues of our time. I understand that the impact was hurtful, and for that I apologize.
“The letter was designed to provide guidance for teachers to lead these discussions and to assist students as they develop their own positions on this important social issue.
“That we have families that do not wish for us to have these discussions has been made clear. However, we are limiting our students if we do not provide them the tools to explore a social cause, research its origin, and understand its significance.
“We have staff that work every day to prepare our students to assume their places as local and global contributors. Anything less is breaking our compact with the community.
“I am not requesting that teachers abandon their passion for a social cause, that social issues not be discussed, or that students not be allowed to express themselves. On the contrary, I am requesting that we affirm publicly through our instructional practices that Black Lives Matter, that all humans have value,and that we stand in solidarity against injustice, racism, and violence, at all times.
“When that affirmation is challenged by those who contend that we have overstepped our mission, I will be able to say that our attention has been on the development of thoughtful processes enabling our students to positively influence their community.
A second online petition has also been started, this one in support of the Hamilton Southeastern faculty’s right to teach and talk about the Black Lives Matter Movement. That petition has close to 900 signatures.