Short videos starring a cartoon robot teaching about "sensitive" topics such as race, sexuality, violence and depression are to be restricted in Smithtown classrooms following a complaint that some of the content is biased against conservative viewpoints, the school board announced Tuesday night.
There are 34 such videos — among hundreds available online from district vendor BrainPOP, on math, science and other topics — covered by the new policy, announced by Mark Secaur, the Smithtown Central School District’s superintendent, at a regular board meeting.
Those videos are to be available to students only "when the teachers deem them appropriate and germane to their instruction," he said.
"We’re not going to censor content but emphasizing teacher discretion and professionalism," he said. "Our teachers make a multitude of curricular choices on a daily basis, and as professionals, we trust their decision-making when choosing the materials they feel will best facilitate instruction and learning."
Company spokesman Thomas Rodgers told Newsday that the flexibility would debut in the fall.
The list of the 34 videos, Secaur said, was drawn up by BrainPOP, and includes topics such as "human development and reproduction, sexuality, violence, mental health, including suicide and depression, as well as race and racism." Rodgers declined to publicize the complete list.
Secaur said: "You know, the concern that was raised was that there were videos with sensitive content accessible to students, as well as some political bias within some of the videos.... We share concerns about students accessing sensitive content without the supervision of parents or their educators."
The controversy came to a head last month, when parents Joe and Marie Gergenti said they first found the content on a Chromebook laptop issued to Smithtown district students.
A video dealing with Black Lives Matter protests, she 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."
BrainPOP is used in 75% of kindergarten to 8th-grade schools in the United States, Rodgers said. BrainPOP videos are accompanied by quizzes, worksheets and other supplementary material. Some videos have provoked controversy elsewhere. In July, a woman speaking at a Three Village school district meeting said the content has "BLM all over it, along with Pride and videos that say if you’re white, you’re basically an oppressor." It also became controversial last year in Sarasota, Florida, where objections to the video about the Black Lives Matter movement led the district to ask BrainPOP to restrict such videos.
Rodgers wrote 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."
That video teaches about the protests that roiled the nation for much of the latter half of 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It says the unrest — which catalyzed changes in policing policy but also caused an estimated $1 billion-plus in riot damage — was "overwhelmingly peaceful, though if you’ve been watching the news you might think it’s all been riots."
The video also teaches that the protests were aimed at fighting "structural racism," which it described as "a built-in system of bias that makes life easier for white people and more difficult" for nonwhites. Opponents of teaching critical race theory, and the pedagogy and philosophy it’s inspired in the K-12 schools, dispute the truth and accuracy of such statements and take issue with presenting them as neutral, arguing instead that they are inherently political.
Critical race theory, and the extent to which it is or isn’t taught, has roiled the Smithtown district this year, and Tuesday’s board meeting was no different. Residents at times shouted and cursed at and heckled one another.
One public speaker who had signed up to comment, a Smithtown alumna of Asian ancestry named Jade Anderson, said she’d graduated two years ago and recounted her time as a student being made fun of for her eyes and called racial slurs. Then an older woman who said she is Jewish rose to object — and elicited applause.
"I could sit there and talk to her for five hours what I was called growing up, and I survived, so you know what? Kids are cruel! They’ve always been cruel!" she said, adding: "Don’t put it off on white people!"