Wake teacher is punished for asking students about their religion, sexuality, income

A Wake County teacher lost a week’s pay for asking her students to answer highly personal questions such as listing their religion and sexuality. But some parents are not satisfied with the outcome.

Wake County generated national headlines after Melissa Wilson, an English teacher at Heritage High School in Wake Forest, asked her 10th-grade students on Aug. 28 to fill out a “Diversity Inventory” worksheet filled with personal questions about them and their families.

Wilson was suspended without pay for five days from Sept. 12-18, according to Lisa Luten, a Wake County school system spokeswoman. Wilson is now back in the classroom.

“I can share with you that your concerns were taken seriously, and that appropriate action has been taken, including measures to ensure that this lesson is not repeated,” Kendra Hill, a Wake senior director of employee relations, told parents in a Sept. 13 letter telling them the investigation had been completed.

Wake also sent an email on Sept. 13 to all teachers reminding them to respect the privacy rights of their students. The email noted that under federal law, legal restrictions are placed on what surveys can ask students, such as questions about sexual behavior, religious practices and income.

Wilson did not respond Wednesday to an email from The News & Observer requesting comment. According to district records, she started in Wake in 2016 as a substitute teacher and later became a teaching assistant. She became a teacher at Heritage High in August 2018 and has a monthly salary of $4,121.

‘Rogue teacher’ or district agenda?

But some Heritage High parents say they’re still concerned that Wake isn’t doing enough to protect the privacy rights of students. In a statement Wednesday, the parents said they “are left with no other choice but to pursue options outside of the school district, legal or otherwise, to rectify the problem.”

“I have no faith in anything they’re telling us,” said Evan Bundros, a Heritage High parent. “They’ve given us this story that it was one rogue teacher going down the social justice ladder.

“That’s not the case. It’s a total agenda that Wake County schools has going on through this Equity Affairs group.”

Bundros’ son is among the students who say they were asked last school year, in January, by Wilson to answer questions such as what was their gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, religion and socioeconomic status.

Students were also asked statements such as the part of their identity that they’re most aware of and the part of their identity that garners them the most privilege. They answered by moving around the classroom to stand under signs for different general categories, such as race, religion and socioeconomic status.

After some parents complained, Heritage High principal Scott Lyons launched an investigation. He told parents that the lesson could have been handled differently and that the parental concerns were taken seriously.

Luten said that the January complaint was handled by the school while the August incident was handled at the district level.

Diversity Inventory Worksheet

Parents complain that instead of learning from the January incident, Wilson repeated the lesson on Aug. 27, the second day of class. She added an extra day to the assignment by having students fill out the Diversity Inventory worksheet asking them to answer personal questions about them and their elementary school, their teachers, close friends, doctor, other people who live in their home and their neighbors.

“I trusted the principal,” said Pam James, one of the Heritage High parents who complained last school year. “I trusted the school that they had taken care of it, and they did not.”

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

In their statement Wednesday, the Heritage High parents accuse Wake of covering up and misleading parents, citing how a second English teacher at the school did a similar assignment this school year. Luten said the situation with that English teacher was addressed at the school level.

The parents accuse Wake and Heritage High of making inconsistent statements. For instance, the school says the worksheet wasn’t part of the curriculum but it’s included in a lesson plan Wilson provided.

Tim Simmons, a school district spokesman, noted that the lesson plan was provided by Wilson after the class was taught. He also said the lesson was not aligned with the curriculum.

In the lesson plan provided to parents, Wilson said, “the purpose of the activity is for students to continue expanding their thinking about these identities to consider their cultural surroundings.”

Wilson said she only collected the worksheets because students wrote on them their answers to questions reflecting on the exercise.

“The intent was not to collect private information, but to assess what students got out of this exercise,” Wilson wrote in the lesson plan.

The parents say that Wilson wouldn’t have told the students to write the answers to the “reflection questions” on the worksheet if she didn’t intend to collect them. The worksheets were later returned to the students.

Luten said personally identifiable student information should not have been requested.

Social justice in schools

Dina Bartus, a Heritage High parent who complained about this school year’s assignment, charges that Wake is not interested in protecting the privacy rights of students. She said stronger action needs to be taken against teachers like Wilson who ask such questions that violate federal privacy laws.

“We really don’t feel like she should be in the classroom teaching minors,” Bartus said.

The parents think that instead of being an isolated case it’s part of a pattern by teachers. Bartus cites how a third Heritage High English teacher says on her school webpage that her “primary goal as a teacher is to combat unjustified cultural, racial, and socio-economic stereotypes within the high school setting.”

“Her primary goal should be teaching language and composition,” Bartus said.

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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.