School & District Management

Should Educators, Board Members Be Disciplined for Supporting Anti-Democratic Beliefs?

By Mark Lieberman — January 29, 2021 | Corrected: February 02, 2021 11 min read
Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
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Corrected: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the state where a school superintendent was criticized for her statement about the insurrection. The superintendent’s district is located in Nevada.

The revelation that school district employees and board members were among the participants, attendees, supporters, and defenders of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has rattled many in education, with some calling for resignations and other penalties.

More broadly, though, the fallout from the violent attack on one of the nation’s most protected buildings has prompted introspection about the critical role education can play in reinforcing the tenets of democracy. It has also highlighted the steep and painful challenges that arise when politics and education converge—as they inevitably will.

“This isn’t a one-off, what happened on Jan. 6. We’re talking about centuries of history,” said Meira Levinson, a professor of education and ethics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Instead of being reactive about the problem, I think districts need to be proactive and create a culture of conversation around these very hard ethical and civic dilemmas that they know they will face.”

School workers and school board members in at least 10 states have been scrutinized in the weeks following the attack. A school psychologist in Cleveland resigned and was later arrested on federal charges for her role in the insurrection. Teachers, bus drivers, and school board members in numerous districts have said they attended the peaceful portion of the day’s events in Washington, but did not commit any crimes themselves. Other school workers and board members have drawn criticism for perpetuating and endorsing false information about the insurrection and its motivations.

People listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Washington shortly before the attack on the U.S. Capitol building.
People listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Washington shortly before the attack on the U.S. Capitol building.
Evan Vucci/AP

School administrators who have criticized the events of that day haven’t been immune from backlash, either. A Nevada school superintendent faced calls from community members to resign after posting a statement that called the insurrection “an assault on democracy” and pointed students and families to resources for dealing with the aftermath of trauma. Some social media comments on her post said her statement was too political and that she should instead focus on the mental health of students who have been out of school buildings for months during the pandemic.

More civics instruction, and more intentional community conversations around topics like white supremacy and democratic ideals, are among the ideas Charlie Wilson, president of the National School Boards Association, is proposing to counteract the increasing prominence of anti-democratic beliefs and activities.

He also said school board members should feel an obligation to publicly call out misinformation and bigotry, even among their own ranks.

“This is what led to Hitler, the Big Lie that Jews were running the country, that Aryans were a superior race,” said Wilson, a member of the school board in Ohio’s Worthington district. “That’s got to be called out immediately by everybody, or else our democracy is not going to survive.”

Figuring out whether employees should be punished for their involvement, even unwitting, or endorsement of an anti-democratic movement is a thornier issue.

“You really want to be careful when you advocate firing district employees for their speech,” Levinson said. “And at the same time, it is true that if their speech is anti-democratic, if it pervades demonstrable falsehoods, if it is demonstrably demeaning and likely to make a group of students feel unsafe or that they will not be treated fairly and respectfully by their teacher, their school or their district, then there’s good reason to act.”

A quick refresher on the events of Jan. 6: Five deaths, 140 injuries, 150 arrested

Details about the insurrection are continuing to come out, but many of the facts are clear: President Trump and other prominent Republicans falsely claimed for weeks after the November election that Trump had prevailed and that widespread voter fraud had distorted the true outcome. A wide range of elected officials from both parties, credible independent organizations, and judges have affirmed that widespread voter fraud did not occur and that Joe Biden rightfully won.

Undeterred, Trump urged his supporters to descend on Washington on Jan. 6 for a protest of Congress’ routine, constitutionally mandated certification of the election results. Thousands attended the event, during which Trump urged the crowd to “fight like hell” because otherwise “you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Trump directed the crowd to head to the Capitol, at which point a portion of the crowd violently breached police barricades to enter the Capitol, assaulting law enforcement officers and damaging public property in the process. Some in the mob carried weapons, Confederate flags, and other white supremacist symbols.

Five people died in the melee, including a Capitol Police officer. Two Capitol police officers who were at the Capitol that day have since died by suicide. More than 140 officers sustained injuries during the attack, including some who may suffer brain damage and one who will likely lose an eye. More than 150 people have been arrested on federal charges in connection with the day’s events.

Videos that have subsequently emerged showed that the mob was mere minutes away from face-to-face encounters with Vice President Mike Pence and other high-ranking government officials. Lawmakers and Congressional staffers and interns have said they feared for their lives. The Department of Homeland Security warned this week that more violence from domestic extremists is possible.

An Ohio state board member faces calls to resign or explain herself

Kirsten Hill was elected in November 2018 to the Ohio State Board of Education, which sets education policy for the state’s 1.7 million K-12 students. In the days leading up to Jan. 6, Hill publicly posted online about a bus trip she was organizing for state residents to travel to Washington for then-president Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally.

After local media reports highlighted her attendance at the rally, Hill issued a statement clarifying that she had not been among the mob that violently breached the Capitol.

For many in the state, including teachers’ unions and lawmakers, those comments weren’t sufficient.

Critics of Hill’s involvement in the rally have emphasized the importance of due process and acknowledged Hill’s First Amendment rights to free speech and attending peaceful protest. But they’ve also firmly asserted that Hill needs to be held accountable for spreading false information about the presidential election, and falling short of denouncing an event that aimed to overturn the democratic process and culminated in tragic violence and loss of life.

“It took a while for her to condemn the deadly mob violence. She had to be prodded to do this,” said State Senator Teresa Fedor, a Democrat and ranking member of her legislative body’s education committee. “I’m very concerned about her judgment and role as a role model for the state of Ohio.”

Phil Robinson, a Democratic member of the Ohio State House of Representatives, said he’s pushing for more information about the exact nature of Hill’s participation in the events of that day. “She was there, she helped organize an event, she engaged in spreading false information about the election,” he said. “There are a lot of gray areas. We’re waiting for those answers.”

Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, believes if evidence emerges that Hill or anyone she helped transport to the Capitol were involved in violence or illegal activity, Hill “should be removed from her position. Even if she were not directly involved, it raises serious questions about the qualifications of someone on a state school board,” Cropper said.

People need to understand who they’re voting for and what those people stand for.

Hill didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Ohio State Department of Education and State Board of Education declined to comment beyond condemning the violence.

Jenny Shafer Kilgore, another member of the Ohio State Board of Education, dismissed calls from some in the public for Hill to resign.

“I am personally astounded by the lack of civility by those in response to Mrs. Hill’s personal endeavors,” she wrote in an email. “...I recognize that among the board there exists different political values but I absolutely, without any doubt, am firm in my knowledge that each and every board member is committed to providing the best opportunities and outcomes for every student in Ohio.”

As an elected official, Hill’s continued employment is in the hands of voters, who could choose another candidate when she’s up for re-election in 2022. Cropper hopes public frustration with Hill’s actions can be channeled into broader awareness of the stakes of state and local school board elections more generally. “People need to understand who they’re voting for and what those people stand for,” she said.

A Virginia teacher told his students he was at the Capitol on Jan. 6

A middle school teacher in the Prince William County district in Virginia was suspended with pay earlier this month after a student posted a video on social media that appeared to show her teacher telling his students he attended the Jan. 6 rally.

He also criticized the news media for, in his view, unfairly blaming Trump supporters for the violence, and he asserted that the Trump supporters on Jan. 6 were “incredibly peaceful,” compared with racial justice protesters last summer.

The head of the local NAACP chapter, Rev. Cozy Bailey, has called on the district to terminate the teacher’s employment.

JB Akbar, a high school teacher in the district and the head of the Prince William County Education Association’s social justice committee, has a different view. Rather than punishment for wrongdoing, he said, the emphasis should be on preventing the wrongdoing in the first place.

“This is already too late,” he said in reference to the middle school teacher’s comments. “We need to look at, what do the students say, how comfortable do they feel in each teacher’s classroom? We don’t want to wait until a student has to report something or it goes viral on Twitter to have these discussions,” Akbar said.

See Also

Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty

Rather than focusing on how to punish a teacher who may have inappropriately injected political beliefs into the classroom, Akbar believes districts, including his own, need to spend more time thinking about how these kinds of incidents will affect students.

Students of color, who may already have their guard up about experiencing prejudice from people they encounter in school, are especially vulnerable in these situations, Akbar said. More than 90 percent of the students at the Prince William middle school that employs the teacher currently in question are students of color.

“Whether it’s this teacher or other teachers, what other encounters did they have with a student that weren’t recorded? How many referrals may have been based on political ideologies as opposed to actual fact? What services are being provided to the students so they can process what was wrong about that?” Akbar said.

Much of the focus of training sessions on racial sensitivity and culturally relevant teaching, Akbar said, is on teachers’ interactions with students. Before teachers incorporate these topics into instruction, “we need to first be able to have those conversations as educators amongst ourselves,” he said.

That means creating an environment where teachers feel comfortable talking openly about their support for racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter, without fear of being accused of getting too political.

“I frequently say if the Holocaust was happening today, would we hope that teachers were neutral, or would teachers be the people who could have made a change and said, ‘Hey, no, this is wrong.’ If we expected teachers to be neutral during slavery, that would be problematic,’” Akbar said. “There are things we need to take a stand on.”

Transgressions as teaching tools and learning opportunities

Districts don’t have to fire an employee to make a point, said Mark Paige, an associate professor of public policy at UMass-Dartmouth. Suspensions, with or without pay, or other efforts to turn wrongdoing into a “teachable moment” can be worthwhile.

Some of the rally’s participants were misled by falsehoods from Trump and some right-wing news outlets and conspiracy theories circulated on social media. Paige argues that may not constitute much of a defense for an educator who supported an attempt to overthrow the government.

“Objective reality would trump some sort of subjective belief,” Paige said. “It highlights and underscores the danger on a personal level of how false information can have consequences for an individual, especially for a public employee.”

Some districts might be tempted to include in future contracts an explicit statement that being a member of an organization deemed a terrorist threat constitutes a fireable offense. Levinson said that’s a risky move, given that terrorist designations are often politically motivated.

Instead, she and her colleagues at the Justice in Schools project advocate for schools to develop ethical frameworks to tackle such tough dilemmas. The project’s website includes short case studies written in plain language that highlight the complexities of issues like teacher speech, navigating political disagreements, and facilitating productive classroom conversations.

School administrators and teachers can use case studies like these to model their own approaches to dilemmas that arise.

“Even if people disagree about a specific decision in a specific case, there will at least be a recognition that there was a public and transparent and thoughtful process ahead of time that helps provide a foundation for a greater sense of trust,” she said.

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