Wake schools tell teachers to respect student privacy after outcry over diversity survey

The Wake County school system is reminding teachers to respect the privacy rights of their students following backlash over a lesson at a Wake Forest high school in which students were asked questions about their gender, sexuality and religion.

Wake County has generated national headlines over how an English teacher at Heritage High School asked her 10th-grade students to fill out a “Diversity Inventory” worksheet filled with personal questions about them and their families.

In an email Friday to Wake teachers, district leaders say that “lessons and activities should also respect the privacy of students.”

The email says teachers should “value the rights of students to maintain their privacy and engage in conversations of identity, self, culture, and other personal topics only when they are comfortable doing so and when appropriate to achieve outcomes outlined in the NC Standard Course of Study.”

The email was written by Drew Cook, assistant superintendent for academics, and Rodney Trice, assistant superintendent for equity affairs.

On Aug. 28, the Heritage High teacher handed out a worksheet asking students to identify their gender, race/ethnicity, age, sexuality, ability, religion and socioeconomic status. In addition to answering for themselves, students were asked to answer those question about their elementary school, their teachers, close friends, doctor, other people who live in their home and their neighbors.

School officials have said the worksheet was not a district-provided resource and that the principal ordered the lesson to be discontinued after a parent complained.

Promoting “social justice standards”

But the N.C. Values Coalition has charged that the lesson is not an isolated incident but instead is part of a pattern of similar behavior happening around the district to promote social justice standards. The Values Coalition took credit Friday for Wake sending the memo, saying that they had “exposed” what’s happening.

“I certainly hope that teachers will take this seriously,” Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the Values Coalition, said in an interview Friday. “As we pointed out in our letter to our members, they (teachers) are breaking the law.”

In Friday’s email, teachers are told that “lessons should be firmly grounded in the learning objectives for the grade level or course and be appropriate for the maturity levels and abilities of students.”

“Students should not be asked or encouraged to reveal information about their identity or other sensitive, personal information,” Cook and Trice write. “Students should not be asked to complete any surveys without the approval of the principal and only in compliance with applicable law.”

Friday’s email notes that under federal law, legal restrictions are placed on what surveys can ask students. This includes restrictions on questions about sexual behavior, religious practices and income.

“The school system has informed them today they are breaking the law,” Fitzgerald said. “If they don’t stop giving the surveys, there should be legal action taken against the teachers.”

According to the parent who complained to Heritage High, the teacher told her students that she was bisexual. In the email, Cook and Trice cite board policy to say that “appropriate discretion should be exercised when deciding whether or not to share your own personal information and opinions while carrying out official duties as a school employee.”

Despite the admonitions, Cook and Trice repeatedly thank teachers for their hard work and say they are there to support them.

“We collectively acknowledge that as classroom teachers, you do the most meaningful and challenging work in our district,” Cook and Trice write. “It is the goal of our district’s leadership to support you fully in that work.

“If there is any doubt about whether a planned classroom activity is appropriate for classroom use you should consult with your school-based administrators, professional learning team members, or content specialists at Central Services to support you when you have questions or when you are incorporating a new resource or strategy.”

Fitzgerald charges that the diversity inventory and similar assignments are inspired by the training given by Wake’s Office of Equity Affairs, which she says is a “conduit” for the “socialist” Southern Poverty Law Center. Equity Affairs promotes SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program.

Several Wake teachers and schools have rallied around Equity Affairs in the past week. Using hashtags such as #StandwWakeOEA, and #Equity4Wake, they say that Equity Affairs is causing schools to ask the tough questions that need to be asked.

“I’m a 16-year @WCPSS educator who is incredibly grateful for the work @WCPSSEquity does to build skills & provide resources for educators that help communities stretch to embrace & honor all students, their families and their experiences. #StandwWakeOEA #SchoolsOurStudentsDeserve,” Kristin Beller, president of Wake NCAE, tweeted Thursday.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.