Number of legitimate reports to teacher complaint hotline unknown
The Empower Hotline has received tens of thousands of prank calls and emails in the past 3 months
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne discusses the results of his department’s Empower Hotline on June 8, 2023, in Phoenix. The hotline was launched to allow parents and others to file complaints about social agendas in classrooms perceived as “inappropriate” for school. Photo by Gloria Rebecca Gomez | Arizona Mirror
The teacher complaint hotline touted by state Superintendent Tom Horne as the key to unearthing hidden agendas in schools has so far resulted in an unknown number of legitimate reports and tens of thousands of prank calls and emails.
The Empower Hotline, as it’s officially known, was created to field email and phone call tips about “inappropriate” school content, defined as anything that focuses on “race or ethnicity, rather than individuals and merit, promoting gender ideology, social emotional learning, or inappropriate sexual content.” Teachers protested the policy and public school advocates criticized it as yet another example of conservative politicians demonizing public education. Horne, a Republican, campaigned on promises to unveil and eliminate culture war topics from classrooms, including LGBTQ issues and critical race theory – a collegiate level academic study used as a catch-all term by Republicans to refer to any meaningful discussion of racism and cast aspersions on public schools.
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On Thursday, the eve of the hotline’s three-month anniversary, Horne shared that it received 30,000 prank phone calls and emails, but he was unable to say how many genuine complaints were submitted. Of the four incidents he pointed to as evidence that the hotline works, one was a spreadsheet of student pronoun and name changes used in a Catalina Foothills District school in 2021. The spreadsheet allowed students to indicate whether or not they wanted their parents to be notified about the information. When the document was circulated on social media by conservative activists in early March — days before the Empower Hotline launched — Catalina Foothills School District denounced the school’s actions.
Another case involved the creation of a Gay Straight Alliance club at a Chandler high school to “discuss gender issues,” in which emancipation paperwork was purportedly distributed to students. Under state law, minors are legally allowed to emancipate themselves from their parents’ care if they are at least 16 and can prove to a judge that their request is valid and they’re capable of financially supporting themselves. Stephanie Ingersoll, a spokesperson for Chandler Unified School District, told the Mirror in an emailed statement that the Arizona Education Department had not reached out to school officials with concerns about the club.
The two remaining complaints involved teacher training content at Mesa Unified District. A list of discussion topics included terms such as intersectionality, privilege, nonbinary, ethnicity and antiracist. And a picture of a racial trauma training lesson that was, according to Horne, sent by a teacher read: “In the U.S., Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) are most vulnerable due to living under a system of white supremacy.” Horne criticized the statement as “divisive and bigoted”.
None of the four cases nor any of the other tips have resulted in any repercussions.
“We’re not looking for people to lose their jobs, we’re looking for people to teach academics,” Horne said.
But he wouldn’t rule out acting on what he called unprofessional behavior if a teacher was found to be pushing their political ideology onto students. He noted that there’s little his office can do, however, about changing district-wide practices such as the content of teacher training courses or the collection of student pronouns. Currently, the department is only discussing complaints with districts.
“I don’t know that we would have the power to force them,” he said. “Right now, we’re trying to find out what the facts are and publicize (them) and let people know why the hotline is beneficial.”
Scottsdale Unified School District Board Vice President Carine Werner joined Horne in urging parents to report concerns about their schools. Werner, who was part of a minority that unsuccessfully opposed a recent adoption of supplemental teaching materials in SUSD, warned that textbooks and online curricula are rife with controversial content. As proof, she pointed to SUSD’s newly adopted content, which includes information about protesting and activism under a lesson about how to be a good citizen. Pictures in that lesson depicts protesters with Black Lives Matter and Climate Change posters, which Werner called racially and politically charged.
“Our kids absolutely deserve better,” she said. “The most important thing that we can do now is when you see things, report it to the hotline, but get involved. Check your kids’ devices, go through your homework with your students, and read their books.”
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