Smithtown Central School District Administration building.

Smithtown Central School District Administration building. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Smithtown Central School District educators on Tuesday will deliver a report on BrainPop, an animated educational platform for children that two parents said was biased against conservative viewpoints and favorable to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Parents Joe and Marie Gergenti said at a July 6 meeting that they first encountered the third-party platform, aimed at grades 3-12 and used by thousands of schools across the county, on a Chromebook issued to Smithtown district students. BrainPop uses videos to introduce students to topics, including STEM, social studies and English.

Joe and Marie Gergenti objected to treatment of figures, including former presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as well as George Floyd, a Black man whose killing by a white police officer last year set off nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.

The video dealing with Black Lives Matter protests, Marie Gergenti said, "goes on and on about Black people being held down by white people ... It is no more than a call for revolution, for our young people to protest."

Some in the crowd applauded her remarks, which followed months of criticism by some parents of the district's handling of race and other issues in its diversity, equity and inclusion work. Superintendent Mark Secaur has said that work is not partisan and is intended to benefit all of the district's students, but district officials have offered no rebuttal to any of the assertions the Gergentis made.

School board president Matthew Gribbin at the July 6 meeting asked Secaur to investigate "if things are appropriate" and how BrainPop is being used. Secaur, also speaking at the meeting, said the district worked to avoid bias in the classroom and on apps, though it is difficult "policing" apps that update content regularly. He did not agree to an interview request, and the district did not answer questions about its use of BrainPop.

BrainPop spokesman Thomas Rodgers said in an email: "We created the video on the Black Lives Matter protests to provide parents and educators a resource for explaining the protests and movement in kid-friendly terms. Our video doesn’t call for or encourage a revolution."

BrainPop works with its school partners to meet "the needs of their local community" by providing context to help teachers introduce classroom topics "and, if requested, limiting access to sensitive topics," Rodgers said, something a Sarasota, Florida, school district did last year after complaints from parents over the roughly nine-minute Black Lives Matter video, according to a report from a news outlet there.

BrainPop features more than 1,100 topics grouped into categories, including science, social studies and English. Short movies featuring an animated robot named Moby are accompanied by quizzes, worksheets and other supplementary material. The Black Lives Matter video appears on the BrainPop website and on BrainPop's YouTube channel, where it was uploaded last year and has been viewed more than 450,000 times.

That video features an animated narrator describing Black Lives Matter to Moby and viewers as a movement formed in opposition to "a built-in system of bias that makes things easier for white people and more difficult for Black people and other people of color."

The video places the Black Lives Matter movement in what the narrator describes as "an important American tradition" of protest whose other achievements include women’s suffrage, improving conditions for workers and ending segregation. She ends by telling children that they can advocate for change in their schools and communities.

Complaints about BrainPop content also surfaced at a Three Village school district meeting July 7, where a woman who identified herself as Kate Davis warned that the platform had "BLM all over it, along with Pride and videos that say if you're white, you're basically an oppressor."

Three Village district leaders said in a statement emailed by spokeswoman Deirdre Gilligan that they have used the platform for more than 10 years. Last year, they said, it was used in remote and in-person instruction and was accessible to 1,400 students in grades 3-6 at a cost of $2.56 per student to the district.

A committee composed of administrators, a teacher and a parent will review any concerns over the platform, according to the statement.

Rodgers declined to say how many districts BrainPop serves on Long Island. A company release in 2020 said that 70% of K-8 U.S. schools used the platform as a remote learning resource.

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