RICHMOND — Upholding campaign promises, elected Republicans in Richmond are working to outlaw from public schools concepts deemed divisive, including critical race theory, leaving educators in Southwest Virginia perplexed as they continue weathering complaints from a misled public.
For his first act after inauguration a week ago, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order to “end the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory,” in K-12 public education.
And in one of his first bills introduced to the Virginia House of Delegates, Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, goes a step further with House Bill 781, which proposes criminalizing the teaching of concepts deemed divisive. Williams’ bill would make it a class-four misdemeanor, on par with public intoxication, for teachers to instruct ideas like critical race theory, often abbreviated as CRT.
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The bill was introduced to curtail “rogue teachers” in public education, Williams said during a phone call Monday. As an example of critical race theory in his district, Williams said diversity and equity training and other resources have been given to teachers.
“There’s no real wordplay here. We’re aiming at the roots of CRT and we’re trying to oust it from our public education system,” Williams said. “This is meant to root out activists from our public education system, and criminalize them if they do not abide by the curriculum that we have implemented, in order to protect our kids.”
But the bill would not stop at critical race theory, said Williams, who is a lawyer. The phrase “divisive concept” could criminalize the instruction of other controversial, disputed or disagreeable ideas.
“This would apply to anti-Semitic teachings. It would apply to anti-Islam teachings, anti-Buddha teachings, all kinds of divisive concepts,” Williams said. “The goal is to present facts and history objectively, and then allow our students to make their own decisions.”
Additionally, HB 781 would stop schools from training teachers or students on social-emotional learning, partly defined by the state as the process through which people develop healthy identities, manage emotions, achieve goals and make responsible decisions. It would also prevent school districts from employing equity or diversity directors.
“The establishment of equity directors in our school system is the embodiment of critical race theory,” Williams said. “They should probably be looking for another job, because we don’t need that type of divisive teaching in our schools.”
Williams interpreted critical race theory as teaching that people are superior or inferior due to their skin colors, are discouraged from achieving based on race, and that the theory blames centuries of past slavery on people living in the present day. Williams said it’s a problem when teachers instruct subjective truths, or truth as they see it.
“I have a good understanding of the concept of using race as a lens to view things, however, I disagree with that concept,” Williams said. “I believe that it’s proven fact that the only thing really holding you back is your own work ethic, and your own values, in order to succeed in this country.”
While maintaining that schoolchildren in grades K-12 are not taught critical race theory, some educators disagree with such critical definitions of the study, suggesting Williams’ understanding is itself subjective.
Critical race theory is nothing new. The concept has existed since the 1970s, describing a college-level academic method of studying race as a construct of society, and a way to closely examine the impacts and legacy of racism on ingrained social structures and other longstanding institutions, such as, for example, policing and schooling.
Some school teachers and administrators in and around Roanoke are flummoxed by recent politicization of critical race theory, insisting that the concepts taught in law schools and sometimes mentioned during teacher training sessions are not instructed to K-12 students.
Taisha Steele is the former director of guidance and school counseling for Roanoke City Public Schools who is now director of Human and Civil Rights for Virginia Education Association.
She is one such official who said critical race theory is not taught in K-12 settings. She spoke during an online panel discussion hosted by Roanoke Points of Diversity recently, addressing the facts of critical race theory.
“The way it shows up for me in the public K-12 sector is in the form of misinformation,” Steele said, of critical race theory. “Another way that we see CRT showing up in the public K-12 education space is where unfortunately people are attacking social-emotional learning.”
Because children come from homes with a variety of experiences, it is important for teachers to have tools that help them support every student, Steele said, explaining the significance of social-emotional learning.
“People are attacking social-emotional learning, which means they’re also attacking the need for mental health services in schools,” Steele said. “When that’s being attacked, and asked to be taken away, that’s really scary.”
‘So many misperceptions’
If critical race theory is banned from Roanoke County Public Schools, the curriculum would not look any different than what is taught now, said Jessica McClung, assistant superintendent of student services and human resources for Roanoke County, overseeing the schools’ equity and engagement office.
“This became a political hot topic. People have so many misperceptions,” McClung said during a December phone call. “I’ve even heard from a parent of a student who was getting ready to go into kindergarten, concerned that we were going to teach critical race.”
Kindergarteners are preoccupied learning how to walk quietly, single-file in the hallways, and how to spell their last names, or how to treat classmates with basic courtesies like kindness and understanding, she said. Even for older students, McClung said critical race theory is at a level beyond K-12 education.
“It’s not about preaching or indoctrinating anything, it’s about respect and responsibility,” McClung said, of equity and engagement in Roanoke County. “It’s about making all kids feel like they belong in our schools.”
Of course schools want to recognize cultural differences among their varied student groups, and Roanoke County has done so for years, McClung said. It can be as simple as recognizing different religious holidays, reminding teachers that some kids might be fasting and therefore more fatigued than usual on a given school day.
“The truth of the matter is, teachers are going to make mistakes, and parents are going to make mistakes when you’re dealing with difficult conversations,” McClung said. “But I believe it’s a time to learn and not shame, and to give grace if mistakes are made.”
Leaping to colorful conclusions
As politicians like Youngkin and Williams have continued campaigns against critical race theory and other apparently divisive concepts, similar rhetoric has found its way into school board meeting rooms across Southwest Virginia.
Tammy Riggs, principal at Colonial Elementary School in Botetourt County, addressed her school board during its December meeting.
“At the last school board meeting, my school and our teachers were accused of having LGBTQ flags in our schools, and indoctrinating children with all of that, as well as CRT,” Riggs said, presenting to the board colorful learning materials that were mistaken as gay pride flags. “I’m here to clarify some things.”
During November’s school board meeting in Botetourt, a member of the public showed the board blurry photographs to point out what were supposedly LGBTQ+ pride flags, apparently being used to indoctrinate elementary schoolchildren. In December, Riggs brought those photographed items to the school board meeting and said they are not flags of any stripe.
“This is simply a plaque that I found … which was colorful and sent a good message, and it’s been hanging in our school for years,” Riggs said, holding up a small, rainbow-painted sign. “It’s hanging in my office, where it shall remain.”
The other item accused of being a rainbow pride flag turns out to just be a colorful pocket chart, used by students for interactive learning activities, she said. Similar charts are used across subjects in elementary schools all over.
“The claims that have been made about the colorful things in my school or in regards to what we are teaching are simply ludicrous,” Riggs said. “I could not sit any longer and let false information be said about the teachers in this division.”
She said the Botetourt County board has for months received heat from the public about topics like diversity and equity, in part because the school division provides teachers with diversity training and seats an equity task force, which includes two parent members.
“You can go into any classroom and see a diverse population of learners with varying learning styles and emotional needs as well. That is diversity,” Riggs said. “We make every effort to make sure that all students have equal access to quality programs and opportunities. That is equity.”
It is important for educators to be culturally aware of students with diverse backgrounds, she said. It’s a daily duty of teachers to accept children for who they are, and to help them reach their potential, instilling in them leadership abilities and core human values, like sympathy and compassion.
“Pretty simple. No underlying meaning of any of these things. No secret initiatives or conspiracies,” Riggs said. “It’s as simple as making sure all of our students, no matter who they are and what they bring to the table, receive a quality education.”
The comments from Riggs came one month after Botetourt school board members assured a heckling crowd that students were not being secretly vaccinated against COVID-19.
‘A political agenda’
In a recording provided by staffers dated April 2021, Youngkin said critical race theory is “using race to divide us.”
“We need to step back and remove the forced use of critical race theory, but then we also have to use something else,” Youngkin said. “I do believe that one of the challenges Republicans have had is we’re very good at saying no, and we’re not terribly good about providing an alternative.”
So far, in Youngkin’s first executive order, and in the text of HB 781, alternatives are not suggested for the now-banned concepts that teachers contacted for this story insist are not taught.
Youngkin appointed a new diversity director, Angela Sailor, on Wednesday, directing her in an executive order to “be responsive to the rights of parents” in curriculum decision-making, while ensuring history education is “honest, objective and complete.”
“I think that we need to teach all our history, both the good and the bad,” Youngkin said. “But we need to also recognize a political agenda when we see one.”