AMHERST — There was standing room only Tuesday night as more than 70 Amherst County residents piled into a joint committee meeting between the board of supervisors and school board to share their thoughts on an equity lesson taught in the county’s secondary schools.
More than 25 community members, teachers, former teachers and parents addressed the joint committee, speaking either in favor of or against the lesson that is given to secondary students and addresses 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 is ultimately 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. 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.
“The goal of this lesson was to give students the tools to do a better job hearing their neighbors, working through differences in a civilized manner to find solutions to very real and complex problems,” Arnold said.
The lesson was formed to aid teachers in discussing the civil unrest during the summer of 2020. Arnold said the lesson was formed with resources and guidance provided by the Virginia Department of Education and the state superintendent. Arnold clarified the school division is not required to offer these lessons, but said he was trying to prepare for federal and state laws that may one day require them.
Supervisors said they have received complaints from residents about the lesson, which Amherst County Public Schools implemented in late March after further review and debate on its language from the county’s school board after it heard concerns from parents and teachers in June. The Amherst County Board of Supervisors curated a list of 25 questions for school officials related to the material’s intent and origin, which supervisor Claudia Tucker said were derived from questions and concerns from community members.
Community member Amy Whitaker spoke against the lesson at the Tuesday meeting.
“Rest assured, there is no equity in this curriculum, only undue guilt, undeserved suffering and the undermining of parents,” Whitaker said.
The school division offered parents the ability to opt their students out of these lessons or to have them receive an alternate lesson.
Gloria Witt, president of the Amherst branch of the NAACP, supported the lesson.
“The school board: You need to support Dr. Arnold,” Witt said. “You hired him to drive equity, he’s doing it and all you’re doing is driving it in the ground.”
Witt ended her comments with a call to action, encouraging communities to run for the board of supervisors if they were unhappy with the decisions being made.
Susan Aigotti, a former county teacher and parent to a current county student, also spoke in favor of the lesson.
“If Black, indigenous and other students in Amherst County are old enough to experience racism, then white students are old enough to learn about those experiences,” Aigotti said.
A few speakers 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.
“Martin Luther King’s movement was all about racial tolerance,” community member Karen Angulo said. “It was about coming together, it’s about finding a way forward, it was about measuring individual character regardless of skin color. But the opposite of what Martin Luther King stood for is being pushed today. It’s racial hate and racial divide.”
In the responses to the 25 questions from the board of supervisors, school board members and school administrators said the division is not engaged in teaching this theory in this lesson or otherwise. Arnold said Tuesday the school board also has passed a resolution that prohibits the school division from teaching critical race theory.
Some community members expressed concern this lesson may not directly teach critical race theory, but could indirectly introduce its concepts.
Priscilla Liggon, school board chairperson, said the lesson was intended to help provide students with the skills to empathize with people around them and people they may meet in life.
“I will not defend things that are wrong,” Liggon said. “These lessons were intended — I said intended — to help this community.”
Dean Rodgers, Amherst County administrator, suggested the schools stop the lessons until they are required to provide them.
Arnold said the school division is developing a policy that will allow the public and the school board to have access to review and comment on any lessons of this nature in the future.
The joint committee took no action Tuesday, but Jennifer Moore, the board of supervisors’ chairperson, said she hopes these conversations will continue moving forward.
In a special-called board of supervisors meeting that followed the joint committee meeting, the board unanimously voted to pass a resolution to adopt and appropriate the schools’ 2021-22 budget. Board of supervisors member Jimmy Ayers was not present at the special-called meeting.