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Utah OKs rules for teaching about racism — and just in time before school year starts

State board’s guidelines come in response to the nationwide debate on critical race theory.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The State Board of Education listens to comments during a public hearing on the 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. The board voted to move forward with the rules as they stand on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.

After hearing from thousands of Utahns in the uproar over critical race theory, the state’s Board of Education has decided to move forward — without any amendments — in implementing the rules that it has developed for what educators can and can’t say about racism in the classroom.

The decision to formalize the new standards came Thursday in a 13-1 vote from the board. And the rules are now set to take effect in just a few days, on Aug. 9, shortly before the school year begins.

“We need to move forward,” said board member Molly Hart. “The rules are not perfect. No document written by committee ever is. But, overall, it’s well-balanced.”

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 “harmful” critical race theory in K-12 public schools — even though there’s no indication that the college-level academic theory has been taught in Utah classrooms.

Under the rules, teachers explicitly cannot say that one race is “inherently superior or inferior” or that people’s moral character is influenced by their 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.

The board, a 15-member body which oversees public school policy in Utah, first approved the rules in June after months of drafting and hours of debate about whether they were too politically charged or if they didn’t go far enough in protecting sensitive discussions about equity. In the end, members said they tried to strike a balance, spelling out what wasn’t appropriate, though including a wider definition of “inclusion” than lawmakers had requested.

After that, enough parents, teachers and policy groups spoke out against the rules that the board was required under state law to hold a public hearing to collect more feedback.

It did that in July, when many speakers went head-to-head over teaching about diversity. Some said the lessons are harmful and unhealthy and “exacerbates hate.” Others talked about their own children of color experiencing racism in Utah schools, including having their braids ripped out or being called names. They suggested that talking about equity would improve conditions by celebrating “the beauty of diversity.”

The board listened, though by statute, was not allowed to directly respond. Members said they have also waded through hundreds of emails and voicemails from constituents on both sides.

They debated what to do with those comments during the meeting Thursday, weighing whether any new points were brought up that merited changing the standards before they were finalized.

War over words

Natalie Cline — an outspoken conservative member of the board who has long been an opponent of critical race theory and has stated that she believes white students are being shamed in the classroom — attempted to bring up an amendment that would have overhauled the rules.

In her version, teachers would have been banned from uttering a long list of more than 100 words, including “equity,” “anti-racism,” “empathy,” “racial justice,” “racial prejudice,” “white fragility,” “conscious and unconscious bias” and “cultural awareness,” among others.

She also wanted any teachers who violated those parameters to be called before a tribunal for possible discipline. She wrote in a letter to the board that some districts have been “corrupted” by critical race theory and need more clear direction “against infiltration.”

“One of the dangerous things about critical race theory, or the way it’s being practiced by some teachers,” she said Thursday, “is the way it’s disparaging our Constitution and our heritage.”

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

Cline, though, was quickly shut down and unable to bring forward her ideas. She was the one dissenting vote in the board’s decision to pass the rules. One other member — board chair Mark Huntsman, who is not related to Salt Lake Tribune board chair Paul Huntsman — was absent from Thursday’s meeting.

She had some support from member Jennie Earl, who also wanted amendments to address “some ambiguity” in response to the public feedback.

But one board member directly called out Cline. Cindy Davis, the vice chair, said: “We don’t need to script every word that our educators can and cannot say.”

She wants students to be able to read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” have discussions about history and race, and talk about what launched wars, like the Civil War. The rule doesn’t and shouldn’t prohibit that, Davis said. Teachers shouldn’t be afraid to talk.

The rules specifically say they can still host discussions on “events, ideas, attitudes, beliefs or concepts.”

What crosses a line, Davis believes, is spelled out in the standards — and that’s talking about one’s race as better or worse than another or being biased in educating.

“If this were a bad rule or bad for children,” she said, “I would not have voted for it.”

Davis, like other members, iterated that any changes Thursday would force the rule back into a waiting session, leaving teachers in a lurch for the rapidly approaching school year.

Passing it now, gives direction to districts to start developing their own individualized trainings for teachers, Hart noted. The board can always come back, if needed, and reexamine definitions or make changes.

Member Carol Barlow Lear also said Thursday’s decision shouldn’t be seen as a “popularity contest.” The rules weren’t about picking the side that sent in the most public comments.

“It’s not like voting for ‘Love Island’ or ‘American Idol,’” she said; it’s about making sure teachers have direction.

Hotline for parents, students

Scott Hansen, who led the drafting of the rules, added that if an issue comes up in implementing the standards in the real world, it can be addressed at that point. Some topics, he noted, should be discussed with 12th graders. Those same things shouldn’t be talked about with third of fourth graders.

He said the rule was always supposed to be about equity and that shouldn’t be controversial. The board needs to move forward, he urged, “instead of arguing in abstract as we have many times.” Even the public, Hansen added, was “saying diametrically opposite things about how it should be handled.”

A board committee will meet Friday to address what should happen when a problem arises. Members have detailed in the standards that teachers will not have their licenses threatened if they break the guidelines. Instead, violations will be handled by each local school district or charter.

The board will, though, set up a hotline so parents or students can report concerns. And it will provide districts with a checklist for implementing that rules. The tally includes vetting all materials before giving them to students, ensuring content is age appropriate and being transparent with parents about what is being taught in the classroom.

The policy specifically allows parents to request a copy of the training about teaching racism that will be given to educators in their district.

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