After what some parents called “pornographic” material was assigned as part of a high school class, Billings Public Schools officials are pursuing policy changes to tighten oversight of teaching materials.
Matthew and Codele Lurker met with district officials to object to a website and online commercial included in their son’s psychology class and delivered comments to the school board Monday.
“(The teacher) violated the sacred trust between parents and schools,” Matthew Lurker told trustees.
School District 2 superintendent Terry Bouck accepted blame for the incident in an interview Wednesday.
“I’m superintendent here,” he said. “Whatever happens here ... it’s my responsibility.”
Students in the class were tasked with studying how gender and sexuality are represented in popular media and advertising.
As part of the assignment, students were shown a Carl’s Jr. ad with women in bikinis hawking the fast food restaurant’s burgers. The ad was deemed too racy for network television. Students were also assigned to select an example of a “shocking” use of gender in an advertisement from www.genderads.com, a website created by a college professor.
The website has an academic bent. For example, in a section about politics, the site discusses several academic texts and poses questions like, “Do these ads reflect any historical progress related to women's power in society?”
The site's ads include images of women and men in provocative positions and instances of partial nudity. It also included section titles like “nymphos” and “dominatrix.”
Bouck said that he was “personally offended” by the content, some of which was distributed to school board members Monday by the Lurkers and another public commenter.
He apologized to any students and family members it affected. The district received no other complaints from parents of students in the course, he said.
The Lurkers questioned the process for teachers selecting course materials outside of what the district offers.
“Why are teachers given such latitude in the classroom?” Codele Lurker asked trustees.
Teachers have the freedom to include teaching materials they seek out in addition to what the district distributes, so long as those materials target academic standards set by the state and district, according to SD2 high school curriculum director Chris Olszewski.
Outside materials are often necessary if district-issued materials like textbooks are outdated, and the school district is years behind on purchasing new textbooks in many subjects.
“There’s also some additional rules and policy in which they have to regulate themselves,” Olszewski said.
District policy addresses the use of these additional materials, especially when they “contain mature subject matter.”
Teachers are supposed to notify parents in advance of showing the materials and give parents the chance to have their kids opt out. Students who opt out must be provided with a “valid, equivalent educational assignment.”
That didn’t happen for the psychology assignment, district officials said.
The website was initially flagged by school district internet filters, said IT director Kyle Brucker, but it was for political content, not adult content.
“We were all kind of flabbergasted,” he said. The district now blocks the website.
The policy exists because some courses are designed to tackle mature topics, Olszewski said, giving students a “balanced and safe environment for students to explore these.”
Bouck said district officials would be revising the policy addressing extra teaching materials, which dates back to 2005.
“We’re going to fast-forward this,” he said. “We don’t want this to happen again.”
The Lurkers continued to have concerns about the district’s response after their meeting, they said in an interview.
“It’s essentially the oversight,” Codele Lurker said. “It’s supposed to mirror community standards, morals and values.”
“Teachers have been emboldened by this lack of accountability,” she said, and given “too much latitude to introduce their personal beliefs into the classroom.”
In this case, the theme of the assignment appeared to jibe with the course aims, Olszewski said.
“Definitely, the teacher had a well-planned-out unit of lessons,” he said. “What was a good intention led to a misstep.”
Trustees typically preface public comment with a script laying out some expectations. They typically limit comment to three minutes and maintain that they can’t interact with the public during the comment period.
Monday night district clerk Mike Arnold cited a new addition: because of privacy concerns, commenters couldn’t mention names or schools.
That troubled Mike Meloy, a public records advocate and Helena lawyer. He noted that the board chair can restrict an employee of the district or another trustee from using a name if individual privacy was outweighed by the “merits of public disclosure. But the board can’t forbid a member of the public from mentioning a name," he said.
“This is so, because if a ‘name’ is known to the public, it does not by definition constitute a matter of individual privacy,” he said in an email.
Arnold said Wednesday that employees still have a right to privacy, and that if a matter discussing them comes up they have an opportunity to request that the board move into a closed session. He said that using the school and class could potentially identify the employee.
Regarding the assignment parents protested, district officials said that there’s been “ongoing” corrective action taken with the employee. The Lurkers said that they were told the teacher now must clear all additional course materials before their use.
Matthew and Codele Lurker said that they are hoping for a direct apology from the teacher, but are “not trying to get (him or her) fired.”
The district’s policy revisions on the use of controversial supplemental materials in the classroom will likely come up before the school board in April, and it could be targeted for regular revisions as technology and materials for schools evolve.
“It changes so fast,” Olszewski said.