Brandywine school board talks proposed explicit book protocols, false media reports

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, August 22, 2023

NILES — Discussion of proposed protocols for middle/high school student access to explicit books at Monday’s Brandywine Board of Education meeting was overshadowed by brief, false reports of mass board and administrator resignations earlier in the day from two area media outlets. 

Both WSBT in South Bend and its sister station, WSJM, in Benton Harbor reported Monday morning that at least four board members and Superintendent Travis Walker were among several planning to resign at Monday night’s meeting. The stories were quickly retracted and corrected with WSBT claiming their incorrect reporting was due to a “clerical error.” 

Board President Thomas Payne addressed the situation in board remarks just prior to public comments at the end of the meeting.  

“I do have a comment,” Payne said. “Earlier today, I think everyone knows about it, false reporting was done by a news outlet from South Bend and I think their sister news outlet in Benton Harbor. It was unfortunate and irresponsible for them to report that there was going to be a mass exodus by the board and Mr. Walker and resignations that would occur tonight.”  

“Obviously, that’s false,” he said. “I did receive an email from WSJM asking me to confirm that before they posted it. By the time I called them, they had already posted it. I was surprised, they didn’t allow me the opportunity to confirm or deny. As I was going through the litany of questions about how this happened, the reporter hung up on me. He didn’t want to talk to me any longer. That’s unfortunate too.” 

Payne concluded by reiterating that no one was resigning. 

“That’s absolutely a rumor,” he said. “No one is quitting or resigning and I’m thankful for that.” 

Brandywine teacher Kevin Smith had a different take on the situation during his comments. 

“I find it very telling that we had an attack article on a teacher with no word from the board but one mistaken thing disparaging a few members of the board and that gets publicly denounced,” he said. “Where is the support for the teachers?” 

As for the proposed rules on student access to sexually explicit books and materials, board members discussed the proposal set forth by board members Michelanne McCombs and Elaine McKee last week and made a few changes. The proposal will now be sent to the district’s law firm to make sure everything is in order before coming back for board action. 

Under the revised proposal, students in grades 7-12 will not have access to sexually explicit books materials now in a restricted part of the media center unless parents review excerpts of the books in question and sign permission slips. The new policy would not apply to students who are 18 and have signed age of maturity paperwork. 

Board members decided to eliminate seemingly contradictory language about students age 16 or younger and also add the possibility of parents giving blanket permissions for students rather than individual permissions for individual books. They also plan to add language that would govern new books coming into the school media center. 

McCombs again called the proposal a good compromise between those who don’t want any restrictions on these books and those who want them out of the schools.  

Smith and another teacher, Abilyn Janke, were among those speaking about the proposed policy in public comments. Smith questioned whether board members have the right to tell people how to parent and if they are actually acting on the concerns of Brandywine parents or just “the parents whose voices agree with yours.” 

Janke said language in the proposed new policy about not showing nudity would affect her ability to teach social studies. 

“How can we teach Renaissance art without Renaissance art?” she asked. “How can we teach about the slave trade and show war photographs? It makes what we can teach incomplete, it’s unfair to our students’ education.” 

Resident Brenda Beadenkopf had a different view. 

“Children come to school trusting that the teachers are not exposing them to harmful ideas and parents need to be able to trust as well,” she said. “It’s more than about nudity, it’s dealing with books that never should have been here in the first place and shouldn’t continue to be here.” 

In his superintendent report, Walker announced that district staff are looking to find ways to open the BACC next to the middle/high school for community use at specific times during the day. They plan to start out allowing the public to use the athletic facilities from 6 to 7:30 a.m. weekdays and maybe add other times when students aren’t using it. 

He encouraged parents to fill out and return free and reduced lunch forms in order for the district to get all the money available for that program. He said the funds received also go to paying for all or part of the salaries of several district staff including counselors and others.