It is important for educators to understand how to approach political activities and conversations that may include content of a controversial nature. You may have students who express concerns over political issues and how they may be affected. It's important to express concern for students, but in addition educators should be aware of their legal rights and responsibilities in regards to addressing potentially controversial topics with students.
How can I show support for students who approach me with concerns?
Listen to student concerns and assure them that they are safe at school.
Answer student questions in a factual manner. If conversations arise about controversial topics in class, attempt to present other viewpoints of the issues.
Refer students to additional resources as needed. Classroom educators do not always have the expertise or time in class to handle difficult conversations.
Remind concerned students that no one person can change things or dictate policies; our government has a system of checks and balances embedded within the system.
Let students know that change takes time; nothing happens overnight.
What legal responsibilities should I be aware of in regards to political activities or discussing controversial issues with students?
As a public school teacher your First Amendment free speech rights generally apply to prevent your employer from taking adverse actions against you on the basis of protected speech outside of work. However, the Constitution does allow for some limitations on the exercise of political rights in the workplace, particularly during instructional time and when acting in the apparent or actual capacity of a District employee.
Thus, an educator should not engage in and must avoid the following activity while at work and/or while acting as a representative of the school district:
Use your authority as an EGUSD employee to encourage/discourage a specific political activity or opinion of students;
Use students to write, address, or distribute political materials;
Express political opinions to staff members that becomes harassment, bullying, or intimidating.
Limitations on political activity do not apply while you are outside of work and acting as a private citizen, and not as a public employee. However, keep in mind that some activity that is arguably political can lose its protected nature if it violates state law. For example, activities that infringe on the rights of others or express views in a way that is unlawful (e.g., hate crimes) can lose First Amendment protection.
Under District policy, teachers may discuss controversial issues in the classroom, provided that the issue is related to the course of study or is instigated by students. EGUSD Board policy states that teachers, in this context, can express personal opinions, but should be careful to identify their own personal opinion as such and do not use their position to forward religious, political, economic, or social bias. Educators might consider setting ground rules for class discussions to ensure civil discourse on controversial topics. Remind students to respect the viewpoints of others and refrain from personal attacks.
These rules generally apply to extracurricular activities with students, like student groups. For example, if students want to start a club related to political or social justice issues and asks you to participate as a faculty advisor, refrain from promoting or appearing to be a member of the club. Student organization activities shall not substantially conflict with the authority and responsibilities of school officials. School staff shall not promote or be a member in student organizations.
EGEA is always available to provide further guidance on these issues. If you have any questions, or are contacted regarding any possible disciplinary action due to your activities, please contact EGEA.
To learn more about relevant District policies, refer to the following links: