Following a June 1 joint meeting between Amherst County government and schools officials that put an equity lesson at the forefront of public debate, the president of the county’s NAACP on June 10 publicly asked the Amherst County School Board to press forward with the material.
More than two dozen community members, teachers, former teachers and parents June 1 addressed the joint committee, speaking either in favor of or against the lesson recently given to secondary students on topics of social justice, bias, stereotypes, and equal or fair treatment of all groups of people. The lesson is not graded.
Rob Arnold, superintendent of Amherst County Public Schools, said the lesson ultimately is a result of an Office of Civil Rights agreement the school division entered in 2015 after the high school was found to have discriminated against students based on race by disciplining African American students more harshly than white students. The OCR is part of the U.S. Department of Education.
As part of that agreement, the school division was required to provide cultural competency and equity training to staff and faculty, hold student forums at the high school for students to express their concerns annually, form groups to review equity issues and incorporate the Virginia Tiered Systems of Support into the schools, which is a framework for supporting students in the areas of academics, behavior, social emotional learning, trauma, informed care and equity.
Arnold said the goal is to give students tools to do a better job hearing their neighbors, working through differences in a civilized manner. He said the lesson was formed with resources and guidance provided by the Virginia Department of Education and the state superintendent, clarifying ACPS is not required to offer these lessons but should prepare for federal and state laws that may one day require them.
The Amherst County Board of Supervisors heard complaints from residents, including some publicly saying they believe the lesson is divisive and part of a left-leaning agenda.
A few speakers have expressed concerns the material is associated with critical race theory, a term for an academic framework examining how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism, which has drawn backlash among conservatives across Virginia. Arnold has said the division is not engaged in teaching CRT and the board recently passed a resolution the prohibits the division from teaching it.
Addressing the board during a June 10 public comments period, Gloria Witt, president of the Amherst NAACP, said she is frustrated and somewhere in all the discussion a connection has to be made “because all of us want to see a positive result.”
“I am feeling very scared this board will press the pause button,” Witt said of the lessons. “We’ve come too far to come backwards. We need to be on the right side of history. We cannot drop the ball, we cannot fumble. This is your leadership moment.”
She pointed to equity as a major theme in the division’s comprehensive plan. “We have made a mess of it in Amherst County because we are uncomfortable, afraid someone’s child is going to be unfairly treated,” Witt said. “We’ve got a problem with equity. You can’t hide from it.”
Beverly Jones, a retired ACPS teacher, said during the comments period 8% percent of the division’s teachers are Black, 89% are white and more than 70% of the administration is white.
“The data shows there was a need, especially for social competency training,” Jones told the board. “...I urge you: put away your personal agendas, conspiracy theories, misinformation and work for every child every day.”
Priscilla Liggon, the board’s chair, read written comments from Monroe resident Sidney Storozum, who has voiced criticism of the lesson and CRT before county supervisors. Storozum wrote “divisive indoctrination” is being taught and spoke out against material making children feel like victims or oppressors based on race.
“...Reverse discrimination and teaching of revisionist history cannot undo historical realities of prior racism and discrimination,” Storozum wrote. “In fact, they interrupt a 50-year-plus period of progress and healing which was the legacy of the civil rights struggle.”
Witt said there are issues with fairness, equality and justice in the educational system and urged the board to move forward with making positive progress toward a more inclusive community. Witt also referenced the transgender community, including Onna McKlennon, a transgender Madison Heights resident who on numerous occasions has asked the board for a non-generic policy that adequately protects the rights of transgender students and employees.
McClennon told the board June 10 said a policy under review doesn’t define the type of harassment she has received, which she described as “shunning” from some ACPS employees while on the job.
“Expecting help from the school system when you are being mistreated or disrespected is not part of some effort to disrupt the schools,” McKlennon said during the comments period. “It’s exactly what you or I would do if we were being mistreated.”
Witt encouraged the board to remove barriers and support Arnold and the division’s diversity council moving forward. The community discussion veering toward politics, CRT and indoctrinating children is “crazy,” Witt said.
“This is not the time or the moment to go backwards and take the easy way out just because you happen to be in a position of power,” Witt said to the board, adding: “Yes, change is hard. No one said it was easy. But we cannot go backwards.”