The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) directly controls curricula and campus policies for six schools. The rest of the parish's schools operate under charter, state or private control. Most schools already have policies in place to prevent intelligent design from creeping into the science curriculum, and most have adopted their own "zero tolerance" bullying policies. But outgoing board president Thomas Robichaux has a couple things left on his to-do list before he leaves his post.
Robichaux introduced two policy changes at a Nov. 15 OPSB committee meeting: adding "zero tolerance," among other discipline actions, to its "bullying, intimidation, harassment and hazing" policy, and ensuring intelligent design and "revisionist history" are left out of textbooks. If adopted, OPSB will implement the policies in the coming school year.
"Now that I'm leaving, I went through my thoughts and found what I really wanted to get done before we leave," Robichaux says. "These were the things we hadn't done yet."
Media have speculated whether the policy amendments coincided with the election of incoming District 4 board member Leslie Ellison, who spoke strongly in favor of state Sen. A.G. Crowe's Senate Bill 217 — a bill that, among other things, aimed to prohibit the state and all local governments from having to protect people against certain categories of discrimination, including sexual orientation, special needs and other factors. The bill would apply to charter schools, which could refuse admission based on that discrimination. (That bill stalled in session.) Ellison defeated Lourdes Moran, one of Robichaux's allies on the board, in the November school board election.
"It's not like I live in a vacuum," Robichaux says. "I would've brought [up these policies whether Ellison] was coming in or not."
Robichaux's policy changes on bullying include the following: "Any teacher, administrator, or other school personnel who personally observes, or who has or receives notice that a student has or may have been the victim of bullying, intimidation, threatening behavior, harassment, or hazing at school or any school activity shall be required to immediately take such action as necessary and appropriate to stop the incident in question, if it is ongoing, and report the alleged acts to an appropriate school district official."
Under the policy, school principals would "take such action as necessary and appropriate to stop the incident in question, if it is ongoing." Disciplinary actions would extend to school staff: "Any school personnel, whether employee or volunteer, teacher, staff or administration, who fails to report an incident of bullying which they personally observe, or fails to take appropriate action as called for in this policy regarding incidents reported to them, shall be subject to discipline, being no less than a written reprimand and up to and including termination."
Bullying is defined as "any intimidating, threatening, or abusive gesture or written, verbal, electronic transmission or communication or physical act by a student directed at another student occurring on school property, on a school bus, or at a school-sponsored event that a reasonable person under the circumstances would perceive as being motivated by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or expression, physical characteristic, political persuasion, mental disability, or physical disability, as well as attire or association with others identified by such categories."
Testifying in support of SB 217 at the state Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee hearing in March, Ellison said "the Louisiana Department of Education has at will inserted sexual orientation into the anti-discrimination policy included in all charter school renewal contracts. They refuse to remove the language even after requesting them to remove it." Ellison added she opposes discrimination "at every level."
"The DOE should not place unjust demands on individuals and education leaders who for religious purposes and religious freedom will not sign off on such a policy," she said.
In an email to Gambit, Ellison spokesperson Nayita Wilson responded to a rquest for comment by saying, "Out of respect for the existing board, Ms. Ellison defers to current OPSB board members."
This year, the state passed the Tesa Middlebrook Anti-Bullying Act, a broad anti-bullying law whittled from the earlier Bullying Prevention Act, which had failed to pass. The Middlebrook legislation included language that defined bullying as harassment for one's sexual identity and orientation, among other targeted characteristics. Robichaux made it his "personal crusade" to see that bill passed. (Its sponsor, state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, pulled the bill after criticism and revision from conservative committee members, who preferred a bill without specific bullying criteria.)
Robichaux says his policy changes have been in the works "for a couple years now with fellow board members."
"[Ellison's] presence is not the reason it's going forward," Robichaux says. "It's going forward because it's the right thing to do, on the right side of history and the kids and their future."
The proposed language on intelligent design, however, could have concrete effects on the transcripts of New Orleans' college-bound students.
On Jan. 12, 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal district court ruling in favor of the University of California (UC) system, which controls 10 campuses, in a discrimination suit over college entrance requirements. In 2005, a group of Christian schools charged that the UC system violated the constitutional rights of students applying to the system, which denied them for failing to meet college requisites. The UC system argued that biology textbooks from Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Books, which were used in the schools the students attended, were "inconsistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community." (Bob Jones and A Beka publish textbooks defending intelligent design.) The plaintiffs said the UC system's policy "constitutes viewpoint discrimination, content discrimination, and content-based regulation."
The appeals court ruled that the plaintiffs didn't show any risk of "suppression of speech" and that the UC system's policy is "reasonable and did not constitute viewpoint discrimination."
Two months later, the Texas Board of Education approved a controversial social studies textbook curriculum that favored a more conservative and less-than-secular perspective on American history. Last year, two years after a controversial move to approve science materials that openly challenge evolution, the board approved textbooks that support it.
Why does Texas matter? Its schools are one of the largest textbook customers. With publishers printing enough books to accommodate the state's nearly 5 million textbook-ready schoolchildren, other states and schools are likely to purchase from that bulk and save cash, though with digital publishers entering the textbook market, that role has diminished slightly.
Robichaux's proposed amendment to OPSB's textbook selection policy states "no history textbook shall be approved which has been adjusted in accordance with the State of Texas revisionist guidelines nor shall any science textbook be approved which presents creationism or intelligent design as science or scientific theories."
The proposed policy also applies to science faculty, who can't "teach any aspect of religious faith as science or in a science class. No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach creationism or intelligent design in classes designated as science classes."
"When this was done in Texas, all this talk was what massive influence would do in other states," he says. "We want to make sure kids are taught history that has been properly vetted by academics and prepared for their consumption."
OPSB's textbook committee is made up of staff from various academic backgrounds and fields. Its members read the books, which are later sent to the board for approval.
"I have no problem teaching (religion) in a religion or philosophy class," Robichaux says, "but the science class is not the appropriate place for it."
The board will address the measures at its Dec. 18 meeting.