How will school districts and the State Board of Education handle complaints that a teacher is attempting to “indoctrinate” students?

As the school year gets underway this week across Coastal Georgia, the hubbub of students flocking hallways again isn’t the only sound one’s bound to hear. Another is the anxious voices of teachers and administrators.

The reason is a trio of hotly debated education laws that went into effect July 1 setting forth the rights of parents to control their child’s education and instructing teachers how they can discuss racism and other “divisive concepts.”

For schools, school districts, and the State Board of Education, now comes the sticky part: how to handle complaints that a teacher is attempting to “indoctrinate” students to their views on race and how it has affected the U.S., from the nation’s founding until today.

As Liberty County schools reopen today, followed by Bryan and Chatham county schools on Wednesday and Glynn County a week from today, supporters of the new laws expect no turmoil.

“Parents are excited about the right to be heard, that our state recognizes their fundamental right to raise up their children,” said Cole Muzio, president of the conservative, pro-family values Frontline Policy Action, commenting on the new laws. “They’re more confident that their kids will not be indoctrinated in schools.”

Critics of the legislation say more acrimony between parents and educators lay ahead, not less — not only in K-12 schools but in the state universities and colleges, where the fall semester gets underway Aug. 17.

“The laws are a clear attempt to divide parents and educators and make that relationship adversarial rather than the partnership it must be to guarantee the success of all students,” Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, told the Capitol Beat News Service in a recent interview.

‘A bigger presence in the school system’

In signing the three pieces of legislation into law at a campaign rally in Cumming, Ga., on April 28, Kemp said the “Protect the Students First Act” ensures that “all of our state and nation’s history is taught accurately – because here in Georgia, our classrooms will not be pawns of those who want to indoctrinate our kids with their partisan political agendas.” In a separate statement, his office said the new law “prevents divisive concepts and ideologies from invading the classroom.”

Morgan, however, said that school administrators can expect to find themselves in “a very tough position” under the “divisive concepts” law, with even elementary grades subject to complaints, Morgan said. At the very least, the law will have a “chilling effect” on how teachers and students discuss current events and other social issues.

Locally, conservative activists plan to aggressively monitor the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System’s implementation and enforcement of HB 1178 (“Parents Bill of Rights”), HB 1084 (“Protect the Students First Act”), and SB 226, which calls for the removal from libraries any materials deemed obscene.

“We hope to have a bigger presence in the school system, more oversight, with a more critical mass of parents,” said Beth Majeroni, co-leader of the local chapter of No Left Turn, a national group seeking, it says on its website, to “mobilize parents all over the country, in every school and locality to organize and become actively involved in overseeing the education of their children.”

Fertile ground?

How the new divisive concepts law will affect local private schools is uncertain.

But a glance at the website of the Savannah Country Day School suggests there’s fertile ground for challenge if, for example, “an individual should feel anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of his or her race” when the subjects concern agonizing chapters of U.S. and world history.

“Mr. Beckmann’s Savannah and the American South class took a walking tour of downtown Savannah,” one entry in the website’s news section notes. “After lunch at Sentient Bean, students made their way north on Bull Street through Forsyth Park to examine monuments and historic markers to better understand the intersection of history and memory — exploring not only how we remember the past but also when and why we decide to memorialize events and people.”

Another entry notes that the eighth-grade class was honored by the Jewish Educational Alliance for a winning art piece inspired by the Terezin Ghetto, “in which each student chose an image, quote, or map that memorializes the Holocaust, and created individual scenes that were assembled to model “Exercise — color theory” by Hana Lustigová (1931–44), May 30, 1944.”

Handling complaints

Under state law, each local school board in Georgia was required by Aug. 1 to have a procedure in place for handling complaints related to allegedly “divisive concepts.”

The State Board of Education issued a “model policy” for handling such complaints in June. The five-page document has clauses that appear ripe for broad interpretation that could justify outside intervention of any sort in the classroom, especially over its ban any school personnel from “espousing personal beliefs.”

In the document’s “Definitions” section, that is described as meaning, “an individual, while performing official duties as part of his or her employment or engagement with a school or local school system, intentionally encouraging or attempting to persuade or indoctrinate a student, school community member, or other school personnel to agree with or advocate for such individual’s personal beliefs concerning divisive concepts.”

According to this language, the Socratic method, a form of argumentative dialogue to encourage critical thinking, could be construed as “attempting to persuade . . . a student.”

In a statement to The Current yesterday, the SCCPSS said a second reading of the school district’s draft complaint procedure is scheduled for Aug. 10, following a first reading on July 13.

“The District intends to follow the law,” the statement said.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...