Why are parents suing their school over this social emotional learning curriculum?

Mother walking daughters to school
Photo: pvproductions/Freepik

Parents of elementary school children sued a Pennsylvania school district over its rejection of their request to excuse their children from being taught a curriculum focused on social emotional learning (SEL). The lawsuit relocated to federal court this month. 

Parents Kristi Alwine, Frank W. Johnson, Brandi Brandl and Oliver Brandl sued West Shore School District earlier this year after the district refused to exempt their children from being taught a curriculum called Character Strong SEL, which the parents claim “conflicts with their Christian beliefs.” 

The lawsuit is the latest example of pushback from parents against SEL in schools across the country as some have raised concerns that aspects of the curriculum echo those of critical race theory, a controversial ideological framework that highlights how race and racism play a role in everyday life. 

In the case of the Pennsylvania school district, the parents claim that the “CharacterStrong SEL curriculum teaches children to identify their own ‘values and virtues’ and to reflect on those values to ‘help guide their decisions.’”

“We’re really for a lot of the same things as a lot of communities, parents and teachers,” said Allison Shipp, the head of the Cumberland County, Pennsylvania chapter of Moms for Liberty. “We want the same things, but above all we want our parental rights to be upheld, which is what this lawsuit is about.”

Shipp told Chalkboard Review that the problem isn’t with the SEL curriculum, but how the district handled it by denying some parents a religious exemption in what she says is a violation of their rights while granting exemptions to others. 

The parents asked administrators that the district no longer teach their children SEL. Court documents show that a principal said the school would fulfill the request until an assistant superintendent overruled the decision, saying the district would not exempt the children without more information about their parents’ specific religious objections.

The parents in the complaint do not levy specific ways in which the curriculum conflicts with their beliefs, instead saying it “does not reflect our values, morals and beliefs in our religion.”

John Norlin, co-founder of Character Strong, told Chalkboard Review that the program does not impose values on students but encourages them to reflect on their own.

“There’s a big difference between prescribed values, which is not Character Strong, and the research-backed strategy of values clarification,” Norlin said. “The big difference is this: When you do the research-backed strategy of values clarification, what it’s allowing upper grade students to do is have the opportunity through their own, unique, lived experience to do their own values reflection.”

“That’s the strategy we take versus any kind of prescribed values – that is not what Character Strong does,” Norlin added.

The issue in this case, Norlin said, is the school’s denial of parents requesting religious exemptions regarding the SEL curriculum, not what’s actually being taught.

Social emotional learning has been criticized by parents around the country who argue that it teaches children a value system that is different from theirs or that it allows teachers to clandestinely sneak in ideologies, according to Max Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who writes about K-12 education. 

Eden told Chalkboard Review that defining social and emotional learning is a tricky question because it can be shifted to include or exclude things.

“I would say, overall, social emotional learning is both a broader cultural and also programmatic trend within a lot of K-12 schools to emphasize self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationships skills either through the delivery of explicit SEL curriculum or as an attitudinal shift from the school in general,” Eden said. 

That shift could ask teachers to be more attentive to relationships in and outside the classroom as well as student wellbeing. 

“I think the problems parents are having come in a couple of places,” Eden said. “One is that the general charge for teachers to become more attentive to student’s social and emotional needs is frequently more or less explicitly framed as a mental health initiative – one that places teachers in the role of a de facto therapist.”

Eden said that some teachers are eager to play that role, but others are reluctant because they don’t have the training. Eden said his colleague at AEI, Robert Pondiscio, has written on how this blending of roles puts unlicensed adults in a position of mental health authority over children.

“The other problem is that the nature of the SEL enterprise has substantially shifted within the past five years, starting with the introduction of what [the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)] introduced as ‘Transformative SEL,’ which is, frankly, SEL infused with the tenets of critical race theory.” 

That curriculum would understand self-awareness as intersectionality, relationship skills in terms of race and self-management in terms of social activism.

“There’s been a rising argument on the right that is sometimes dismissed by SEL supporters that SEL might be in some cases a Trojan horse for left-wing ideology to seep into the classroom outside the curriculum proper,” Eden said. 

Shipp echoed that the change in recent years to teach transformative SEL is the issue. 

Parents then jump to the conclusion, whether warranted or not, that schools or teachers implementing SEL are moving to the left, Eden said. 

SEL has been described with blanket statements, Norlin said. “SEL is blank.”

Character Strong supports parents knowing exactly what their children are learning, he said. It opens up its curriculum so parents know what their students are being taught. 

After administrators at Midland Independent School District in Midland, Texas researched the Character Strong curriculum, Norlin said, they concluded that there was no evidence of CRT or other hot political topics in the curriculum which would violate state law.

That’s because, according to Norlin, those ideas aren’t in Character Strong’s curriculum, but he can’t speak for others. 

“Our program is designed to teach skills that research shows supports academic and life success, that’s our role. We don’t feel our role is to take a stance on any hot topic,” Norlin said. “Every community that we’re in is different. They have their own interests and we believe that our role is to help educators.”

Brendan Clarey
Brendan Clarey is K-12 editor at Chalkboard Review. Reach him at bclarey@franklinnews.org.

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