Utah police union accuses teachers of ‘political indoctrination’ by supporting Black Lives Matter movement in class

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City police officers lined up to block Black Lives Matters protesters on on July 12, 2020.

Utah’s largest police union alleges that some teachers in the state have been pushing an anti-law enforcement agenda by making “disparaging comments” about officers in front of students and wearing Black Lives Matter shirts in the classroom.

In a letter addressed to the state superintendent this week, the Utah Fraternal Order of Police demands that Utah Board of Education immediately denounce such actions. Educators, the union said, should be neutral on all political issues.

“If teachers want to protest police, then it needs to be on their own time,” the union wrote. “The classroom is NOT the place for political indoctrination or social engineering based upon the political leanings of the teacher.”

The FOP specifically points to a teacher at an unnamed West Jordan elementary school, who it said wore a BLM T-shirt and spoke out against police to her class.

One of the students in the room, the union said, happened to be the daughter of an officer who was injured during one of the recent Salt Lake City rallies. At those events, protesters have denounced racism and violence at the hands of law enforcement in response to the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white Minneapolis officer.

The protests largely have been peaceful, though a few officers have gotten hurt by objects being thrown; some participants have been shot with rubber bullets and pushed with shields.

In its letter, the FOP called the demonstrations “riots.” And it said the West Jordan student was uncomfortable with the discussion and felt like her parent was being attacked by her teacher.

“This child was emotionally devastated by someone who should be helping her feel safe,” the union added.

Ian Adams, the executive director of the Utah FOP, said Thursday that he wouldn’t identify the family or school for privacy reasons. But the officer, he said, had to be hospitalized because of his injuries during the May 30 rally that was the most turbulent and likely the largest. “Now, how is that child supposed to trust that teacher?” Adams asked.

In response to the allegations, Sandy Riesgraf, the spokesperson for Jordan School District, said Thursday that administrators there were never contacted directly by the union. But they conducted a review after seeing the letter and found “no evidence that a teacher, as they say, was making disparaging comments about law enforcement officers in the classroom.”

Riesgraf said a teacher at a West Jordan elementary was wearing a BLM shirt. That alone, though, likely does not break the district’s or the state’s policies concerning political speech by educators.

Utah’s rules on teacher conduct prohibit an educator from giving personal opinions about politics or religion to students.

“Obviously, within the confines of a classroom discussion, to discuss the Democratic and Republican parties is fine,” said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education. “But to say one party is better is not. … You’re allowed to discuss them as concepts.”

Peterson added that it would probably be up to attorneys to determine if a Black Lives Matter shirt crosses a boundary. Is it like a rainbow sticker supporting the LGBTQ community? Does it just tell students that they should respect Black lives? Or, he asked, does it convey an anti-police message?

“That would be open to interpretation,” Peterson said. “I’m sure there are lawyers who would argue that is political speech.”

However, Black Lives Matter Utah does not view it as political. Leader Lex Scott said that valuing Black lives isn’t a partisan issue.

“When we say that our lives matter and you disagree, that’s racism,” Scott said Thursday in response to the FOP letter.

She has sent a message to the union, asking the leaders there to sit down with members of Black Lives Matter Utah and have a discussion. Currently, she feels the letter is creating more division in the community. “I hope that they’ll give us a call and that we can handle this diplomatically,” Scott added.

Adams with FOP, though, believes that wearing the shirt expresses an opinion about political activism. And he said he also wouldn’t want teachers to wear Blues Lives Matter shirts to support the police. There should be no agendas about law enforcement, he suggested, inside the classroom.

“Unfortunately, it’s the students who pay the price on this one,” he said.

Additionally, the FOP said the West Jordan elementary incident is just one case of “several” it has heard about from its 4,100 members since the new school year began last month, after a summer of tensions between police and protesters.

The union suggested that teachers are also assigning books “that portray police officers as evil, or unnecessarily violent toward persons of color.” The group said educators have, as well, given speaking assignments “full of anti-police sentiment.”

“This is not what the education system in Utah should look like,” the group wrote in its letter. And students, they said, especially those with parents in law enforcement, “should not be subject to this treatment.”

The union is now calling for the Utah board to remind teachers of the rules regarding political speech. The FOP concludes: “We trust that this issue can be resolved.”