Parents share kids’ experience with racism at hearing on teaching it in Utah classrooms

Board of Education is required by law to engage in public discussion before the new rules take effect.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Linda Isom talks about the struggles her adopted children have faced, during a public hearing on the Utah State Board's recent rules for teaching about racism in the K-12 classroom at the State Board of Education in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, July 22, 2021.

One mother who walked up to the podium to speak started shouting before she got there. Teaching about racism in schools, she yelled into the microphone, is evil, “full of toxic ideologies” that promote hate and is unnecessary in Utah.

The next mother to come forward talked about how her two Black daughters have long been bullied at their elementary school here. One of her girls came home early after a white kid in her class ripped out one of her braids, leaving a bald and bloody spot on the back of her head. She wants students to learn about equity in the hopes that it will make them kinder and more understanding of differences.

That kind of emotional back and forth, often with back-to-back speakers, characterized a public hearing Thursday night about new rules issued by the Utah Board of Education, with a split of those in favor and those opposed to lessons about race. The board recently defined what Utah teachers can and cannot say about equity in the classroom.

One parent would speak in favor of discussions on diversity. The next would call those divisive. One would say it’s important to discuss all aspects of history, “even the bad parts.” The next said doing so “exacerbates hate.”

The standards were issued amid an uproar over critical race theory that has rocked the nation. The new policy largely follows a directive from the state’s conservative-leaning Legislature, which ordered the state school board to ban any lessons on the “harmful” theory in public K-12 schools — even though critical race theory has not been taught in Utah schools.

Under the rules, teachers explicitly cannot say that one race is “inherently superior or inferior” or that someone’s moral character is influenced by race. They also cannot instruct that students bear responsibility for the past actions of any individuals of their race, such as blaming white people today for slavery. But the definition of “inclusion” is broader than lawmakers’ parameters.

The board approved the language last month, after a similarly tense debate of its own, trying to strike a middle ground.

Enough parents, teachers and policy groups had objections, though, that the board was required under state law to hold a public hearing to collect more feedback before it can implement the rules in classrooms this fall.

People crammed into the meeting room Thursday night, filling every seat and also an overflow space, lining up against the walls and spilling into the aisles. Some wore Black Lives Matter pins and masks. Others had on American flags. One conservative speaker donned a T-shirt that said, “Lions not sheep.”

A man also stood outside, opposing instruction on racism with a sign that said critical race theory was really “communist radical takeover.” Police officers paced the hallways.

More than 80 people attended. The six groups that requested the hearing were allowed to present; five of those were in favor of discussions of racism and inclusion in the classroom, and one was against.

Additionally, 21 individuals voiced their thoughts. Of those, eight were in favor and 13 against.

The hearing was limited to two hours, though, and not all who wanted to speak got their two minutes at the microphone. At the end, many stormed the podium, chanting: “You changed the list,” accusing the board of hand-selecting the speakers.

One man, James Sullivan, the brother of John Sullivan — the Utah activist who has been arrested for allegedly rioting at the U.S. Capitol in January — said the board heard only from people of color who supported talking about race and race theory.

“I find it funny that we didn’t allow the Black conservative here to speak,” he shouted.

When he was told the meeting was over, Sullivan repeated: “You’re afraid. You’re afraid.”

The board later put out a statement, saying it had “the utmost level of respect for the required process” and encouraged anyone who didn’t talk to submit a comment by July 31 to rules.comments@schools.utah.gov. The board has already received more than 200 pages of submissions.

“We do appreciate that some of you are frustrated,” noted Ben Rasmussen, the director of law and professional practices for the board.

Rasmussen noted that moving forward, the board can take the public comments into consideration and choose to make amendments to the rules. That would come at its Aug. 5 meeting. And it would start the process over again, with more debate and the possibility for another hearing.

The board could also choose to do nothing and let the rules take effect for the coming school year. Many at the meeting on both sides said they hope that doesn’t happen. Almost everyone wanted changes.

Supporting discussions of race

Michelle Love-Day, a Black member of the Utah Ethnic Studies Coalition, said she wants to see the rules promise an open discussion about race in the classroom, where teachers can answer questions and students can share their views — without being worried about crossing “some vague line.”

Looking at the real history of the United States is the only way to learn from mistakes and move forward, she added; she’s not asking for advocacy of anything, just honesty.

“It’s OK to admit and look at the struggles that our country and our state have come from,” Love-Day said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Love-Day makes some comments representing the Utah Ethnic Studies Coalition, during a public hearing on the Utah State Board's recent rules for teaching about racism in the K-12 classroom at the State Board of Education in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, July 22, 2021.

Students should learn, too, she noted, to establish relationships across their differences. Kathleen Christy, also with the coalition, said it’s about “the beauty of diversity.”

Some parents talked about their kids’ experiences with racism in Utah schools and said they see discussions around inclusion as the antidote. Limiting what can be said, as they believe the rules do, won’t fix anything, they said.

Allison Schlichter pulled her Black daughter out of school after she was bullied for the color of her skin. “It serves all students to learn a full and accurate history,” she noted. “We all benefit with more understanding, not less.”

Linda Isom shared her two Black daughters’ accounts of being called names and having their braids pulled. One of her girls felt so much stress over it that she asked her mom if she could wash her skin to make it lighter.

A mother of a two white boys said she wants her kids to learn about diversity, too. One of her sons, she said, was sitting in his high school parking lot last year and singing along to a rap song with his windows down. He shouted out a racial slur, Genevra Prothero noted, and a teacher overheard him.

That teacher pulled her son aside and had a difficult conversation with him. Prothero said she was glad he did. She tries to teach her boys about inclusion, but she also wants it to be part of the curriculum.

Teachers and Democratic legislators also lined up to talk.

Jennifer Graviet, president of Weber Education Association, said she worries that as the rules stand, it will discourage educators from speaking up about social justice. They’ll be afraid of being disciplined for overstepping the new boundaries.

The librarian at her school, Graviet said, already plans to drop her diversity reading club for students to avoid any trouble. The history teacher there said he won’t be mentioning Black History Month this coming year. And another won’t be hosting debates in class for fear that some students may speak for or against things like reparations for the families of slaves. They worry that will make it look like they’re advocating for a position.

Graviet wants to see an addition to the rules to explicitly state that teachers won’t be punished for discussing challenging topics and ideas. That could include the Tulsa race massacre, the Japanese interment camps in the U.S. and Utah, and the Native American boarding schools here, as well as across the nation.

“The good, the bad, and even the ugly does not have to diminish our love of country,” added Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, a former educator. Half the room clapped. The other half shook heads.

Those opposed to diversity lessons

While critical race theory first emerged in the 1970s, those on the political right have recently latched onto it as a threat to the nation’s children, arguing that it inappropriately inserts race into classroom instruction that should be colorblind.

The theory, often misinterpreted, is an academic framework that pinpoints racism as the defining feature of the United States, shaping the country’s founding and current legal system.

Monica Wilbur, a member of the Academic Integrity Movement, a right-leaning group that promotes parent choice in education, said those in favor of teaching critical race theory are from “special interest groups.” Among those, she listed Black Lives Matter, the Utah Education Association and the Utah Board of Education’s committee to look at inclusion in schools.

“Schools should stay in their lanes,” she said, and not be driven by “a wolf in sheep’s clothing framework.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Fiveash, director of the Academic Integrity Movement, speaks during a public hearing on the Utah State Board's recent rules for teaching about racism in the K-12 classroom at the State Board of Education in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, July 22, 2021.

Wilbur said her own white children and others have been called privileged, insensitive and racist for disagreeing with their teachers on race. Another mom, who recently became a U.S. citizen, said her kids have had to role-play in the classroom as “the oppressor.”

“I found this to be unhealthy and harmful,” said Andrea Stringfellow, a parent of five. “Are we trying to divide and segregate? We must stop with the blame, shame and guilt.”

Several said they’d like to see the rules strengthened ever further to stop discussions of race. They also advocated to take out any mention of “equity” and replace it with the more generic term “educational excellence.” They believe that will ensure no students are singled out.

“We need to prevent teachers who want to turn their classrooms into political activism training grounds,” said Jennifer Myers.

Others called talking about racism “child abuse” and said parents should be able to opt out. One mother suggested critical race theory is “a Marxist practice to divide our children.” Another said it buoys the “delusional propaganda of systemic racism.” She called on board members who disagreed to resign.

“We do not want you to represent us,” she said to cheers from some in the audience.

April Despain, a mom in Murray, said her third grader was exposed to critical race theory in his classroom last year through posters that the teacher had hung up. She said the rules from the state board need to be more stringent, going beyond just instruction to block any kind of materials about the topic in schools.

Though the board created the rules, much of the actual decisions on what will and won’t be taught will be up to those local districts and charters to decide. And the debates have started there, as well. A board meeting at Granite School District earlier this month erupted with similar backlash over what teachers could say about race.

Members of the Utah Board of Education did not speak at all Thursday, only listening to what the public had to say.