DARIEN – A children’s book about gender and acceptance that was read to Darien second-graders sparked controversy among parents last year regarding its appropriateness in the school district. But on Tuesday, a local parent group turned down a plan to be more involved in the curriculum review process.
The Board of Education’s proposal came about after a viral video showed a Darien parent telling the school board that “Julián Is a Mermaid” is not age-appropriate. The Superintendent’s Review Committee then reviewed the book and approved it again in December. The reinforced support led to additional online criticism from the Connecticut Republican Party, who claimed state Democrats wanted to take control of education away from parents.
A new district plan to extend membership of the review committee to parents, however, was squashed after the Council of Darien School Parents – the umbrella group representing local parent-teacher organizations – declined to participate in the committee appointment process during a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.
“Identifying parents for this particular function does not help us support students and has the potential to turn neighbor versus neighbor,” Crystal Hill, co-chair of the group, said at the Tuesday school board meeting.
Under the proposed revision to the procedure for challenging instructional materials, the council would have been required to appoint three parents of current Darien students to join the review committee. But Hill said the appointment would pull the parent council away from its primary focus – the health and well-being of students.
“CDSP is not, nor has ever been, a political organization,” Hill said. “While we appreciate the board and administration recognizing that we are impartial, the proposed appointment of CDSP to place parents on the Superintendent’s Review Committee must be respectfully declined.”
Hill’s comments then fueled further debate along party lines about whether the district should include parents in the review process at all.
Democrat Julie Best said parents should not be included, arguing that most are not as qualified as current members of the review committee: The assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, the president of the Darien Education Association, the president of the Darien Administrators’ Association and up to three teachers.
“To me, that’s taking individuals who have no expertise, who are only sitting there to make a decision with their personal values and beliefs,” Best said. “And they’re deciding if a peer – another parent – is right or wrong with only that as their tools, and I don’t think that’s helpful.”
Best said allowing parents to rule on instructional materials could further divide the community and that the board should find other ways to bring transparency to the review process.
Democrat Kadiatu Lublin said she’s also opposed to including parents in the committee, pointing to the parent council’s refusal to participate as confirmation that membership should stay as-is.
“It’s telling that the umbrella parent organization in town did not want to be part of this as well,” Lublin said. “I think that it is a slippery slope in many ways.”
Lublin also argued it does not make sense to bring in additional oversight when the district has already hired “educational experts” to serve on the committee.
“It doesn’t make sense to me why we wouldn’t be trusting our own in-house people. I almost see it as a vote of a lack of competence,” she said.
But Republicans board members backed the proposal, emphasizing the value of parent participation.
Republican Vice Chair Jill McCammon noted the board has recruited parents for workgroups in the past and found that many community members have valuable skills. The board could do the same for the review committee, she said.
“I do think we probably have people in the community who might have experience in child development, or child psychology, or reading materials who might be willing to volunteer their time and their expertise, and I think it’s a great way to involve them,” McCammon said.
Including parents in workgroups proved to be a “very effective tool” for rebuilding trust between the community and the district, she said. While McCammon understands that expanding review committee membership is not the ultimate solution, she said it could help.
Republican David Brown also called for parent involvement. He said the “main flaw” in the current process is that the people who choose the books are the same people who review them. Including parents, he said, would open the process up to the entire community.
“At some point, we do have a political role. We do have a different role than the administration, and that is also to reflect the views of our constituency,” Brown said of the board. “And this is a process to facilitate those views and get the involvement.”
While no official vote was taken, the Republican-majority board said they would consider the criteria for parent members and move forward with revising the policy.
But before the meeting ended, resident Armel Jacobs Witthuhn urged the board to oppose parent membership. Allowing unqualified residents to participate in the review process, she said, would only encourage the criticism that the district received over “Julián Is a Mermaid.”
“I don’t know if you had fun with everything that happened around the mermaid book and the circus that that created, but I’m wagering that you really didn’t,” Jacobs Witthuhn said. “I don’t think you want that to be an ongoing thing.”
She said residents would only join the committee to control which books Darien students have access to and promote their own beliefs.
“The whole committee is being created for political purpose, or it’s uprising from a political fiasco,” Jacobs Witthuhn said. “So to continue the bending and the cowering – I just don’t think you’re going to get anything [other] than more of the same circus you’re trying to avoid.”
You can watch the meeting coverage on Darien TV79 here