‘Appalling’: Salt Lake City school board members slam Utah’s new anti-DEI bill

A district official said they anticipate “legal action.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School Board member Mohamed Baayd speaks during a school board meeting at West High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

Salt Lake City school board member Mohamed Baayd is criticizing the bill Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed Jan. 30 that bans diversity, equity and inclusion programs in public education systems across the state.

The Salt Lake City School District’s motto has “always” been about inclusion, diversity and equity, Baayd said during a Feb. 6 board meeting. His comments followed a presentation from a district official, who outlined legislative policies that stand to affect the district, including the measure Baayd cited, HB261.

Baayd contended that the the bill targets marginalized and disenfranchised communities.

“It is sad. ... Some schmuck somewhere in the country just got up one day and wanted to enforce this across the country,” Baayd said of the bill’s signing, making Utah the sixth state in the U.S. to pass such a measure. “What makes this country beautiful is the fact that it’s diverse, and it’s the fact that it is inclusive.”

“That is just appalling, that is just so inhumane,” Baayd added.

District has disagreed with state lawmakers before

Board member Kristi Swett said Feb. 6 she remains hopeful that the district will retain some measure of flexibility in applying the law in order to show its students, staff and families that it still values diversity, equity and inclusion.

She noted during the brief conversation that the district has “risen and been that phoenix at times” when it comes to challenging the views of state legislators.

“If you’re going to be the flagship [district] in the state, then [there are] going to be hard things that you’re going to have to do sometimes,” Swett said, “and you’re going to be the odd man out in some of those conversations.”

In a statement shared days after the meeting, Superintendent Elizabeth Grant said she is proud to lead a district “known for its culture of inclusion of all children — no matter their race, ethnicity, national origin, disability status, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or language(s) spoken at home.”

She added that the passage of both HB261 and HB257 — a bill that bans transgender people from gender-specific public spaces like restrooms and changing rooms — requires “attentive, thoughtful action from our school district,” and recognized the hurt that some students, families and staff may be feeling.

“No matter the legislation enacted, our schools and district facilities will remain safe and welcoming places for ALL students and their families,” Grant wrote.

Anti-DEI debate enters all levels of education

The legislation will take effect on July 1 and apply to the state’s public colleges, universities, K-12 schools and government offices.

Along with pushback from Salt Lake City school board members, University of Utah professors recently voiced their frustrations after it was signed into law.

All eight of the state’s public colleges and universities will be prohibited from using the terms “diversity, equity and inclusion,” with DEI offices to be reframed. Higher education institutions will also be required to open any initiatives that were previously race- or gender-specific to all individuals.

The same is true for K-12 districts, which will be prohibited from maintaining any offices, divisions, or employment positions created to “promote certain individuals or to target certain groups over others,” district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin explained to board members at the Feb. 6 meeting.

The Utah State Board of Education also recently revised the state’s educational equity rule in a way that aligns with the bill. Under the rule change, any training or practices related to diversity, equity and inclusion are banned.

State school board member Natalie Cline, who came under fire last week after she shared a photo of a high school athlete on Facebook and suggested the minor was transgender, argued that the state’s original educational equity rule was discriminatory.

“It actually is used to tip the scales in favor of certain groups and it puts equity over merit and personal responsibility,” Cline contended during a January meeting.

But opponents say the new rule is just a “copy and paste” of HB261 — and that its changes now remove protections for underserved students.

“In one night, members of the Utah State Board of Education eradicated months of hard work provided by the community,” said Darlene McDonald, a national committee member for the Utah Democratic Party. “[The rule] is no longer worth defending.”

With the anti-DEI bill and the transgender restroom bill, Chatwin said the district does “anticipate legal challenges” from members in the community.