T. Keung Hui
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
Johnston County teachers could be disciplined or fired if they teach that American historical figures weren’t heroes, undermine the U.S. Constitution in lessons or say that racism is a permanent part of American life.
The Johnston County Board of Commissioners is withholding $7.9 million until the school board passes a policy preventing Critical Race Theory from county classrooms. School leaders deny that Critical Race Theory is being taught. But to get the money, the school board unanimously approved Friday an updated policy on how history and racism will be taught.
“When we all work together we can accomplish good things for kids, and this is one of those moments I truly believe has happened,” school board vice chairwoman Terri Sessoms said at Friday’s specially called virtual meeting.
The revised Code of Ethics policy includes new wording such as ” the United States foundational documents shall not be undermined. and “all people who contributed to American Society will be recognized and presented as reformists, innovators and heroes to our culture.” The policy says failure to comply “will result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.”
The new policy was denounced by April Lee, president of the Johnston County Association of Educators and an 8th-grade social studies teacher. She said the school system is “selling our souls to the devil for $7.9 million.”
“It’s basically extortion,” Lee said in an interview. “They’re holding money hostage until they get a policy that is extreme enough for them to approve. We should all be angry about that.”
Critical Race Theory questioned
Fights over Critical Race Theory and school masking have dominated school board meetings in North Carolina and nationally. Critics of masking and Critical Race Theory have held multiple rallies outside Johnston County school board meetings, including one in September led by U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn.
Critical Race Theory, according to the UNC-Chapel Hill history department, is a “scholarly framework that describes how race, class, gender, and sexuality organize American life.”
This view holds that systemic racism has been and continues to be a part of the nation’s history.
North Carolina schools have denied teaching Critical Race Theory. Instead, they’ve said they’re promoting equity and inclusion practices designed to help educate an increasingly diverse student enrollment. But critics say teachers and schools are promoting Marxist, anti-American values.
Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson released a report in August that included complaints from parents across the state accusing teachers of trying to indoctrinate students.
Republicans at the national, state and local level have tried to regulate how racism and history are taught. In September, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed an anti-Critical Race Theory bill passed by Republican lawmakers that the governor said is based on “conspiracy-laden politics.”
Johnston commissioners withhold money
In Johnston County, the all- Republican Board of Commissioners told the school board in June they would withhold $7.9 million in new school funding until a policy banning Critical Race Theory was approved.
In July, the school board responded with revisions to the code of ethics policy saying that “instructional staff and other school system employees will not utilize methods or materials that would create division or promote animosity amongst students, staff and the community.”
The updated July policy also said “staff shall not teach social theories outside of the North Carolina standards of any kind to students.”
But those changes weren’t enough to satisfy commissioners, leading to the revisions approved Friday. The vote comes as school board members plan to attend Monday’s board of commissioners meeting to request the withheld money.
School board chairman Todd Sutton asked Superintendent Eric Bracy to make sure that commissioners get copies of the updated board policy before Monday’s meeting.
“I’m hoping that each one of you will take time out to show support for Johnston County Board of Education as we go over there and hopefully they approve us for our full amount of $79.9 million as we’ve asked for in our budget for this year,” Sutton told his fellow board members after the vote.
Teacher can’t undermine historical documents
A repeated refrain from critics at school board meetings is that an overly negative view is being taught about the nation’s history. Complaints have been made about how teachers may cite The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which talks about the central role that slavery played in the nation’s forming.
The new Johnston policy tells teachers not to undermine foundational documents, which include the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
“All people deserve full credit and recognition for their struggles and accomplishments throughout United States history,” the policy says. ” The United States foundational documents shall not be undermined.
“No employee of Johnston County Schools will make any attempt to discredit the efforts made by all people using foundational documents for reform.”
The policy also tackles the sensitive topic about how to teach about historical figures.
“All people who contributed to American Society will be recognized and presented as reformists, innovators and heroes to our culture,” according to the policy.
Lee questioned how she would be expected to teach about figures such as President Andrew Jackson, who forcibly relocated Native Americans to reservations.
New rules about teaching on race
The policy addresses the complaint from some people that students are being taught concepts such as “white privilege,” which is the belief that white people have an unfair advantage over other people due to their race.
“No student or staff member shall be subjected to the notion that racism is a permanent component of American life,” according to the policy. “No unequal value shall be placed on any race, gender, religion, ethnicity, social class, or any other identity group.”
Lee says the new wording overlooks the racism that people of color have experienced and continue to experience.
Teaching students to act inside the law
The policy says “teachers will instruct and educate students about legal policies and avenues of actions.” The policy also says its goal “is to foster positive relationships between our students and the local government entities who provide services to their community.”
“Any group who encourages students to act outside of the law, places this relationship in peril, and is not productive to the goal of Social Responsibility,” the policy says.
School board member Ronald Johnson, who had pushed for the changes, said the updated policy was reviewed by teachers, administrators and law enforcement officers. Johnson is a Smithfield Police detective.
The wording comes after the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of white police officers. Some parents complained at school board meetings across the state about schools promoting Black Lives Matters.
Lee says the policy limits the ability of teachers to talk about civil disobedience, such as what was used during the Civil Rights Movement.
“Yes we should teach children legal means to enact change,” Lee said. “But we also have to acknowledge that sometimes those legal means weren’t always used because they weren’t the only means to create change in society.”
Impact of new policy
Many of the elements approved Friday were included in internal rules adopted by district administrators in September. But now they’re officially part of board policy.
Lee said she won’t change how she teaches because of the new policy. But she says it could cause the public to target teachers, causing some to change what they do to protect their job.
“I feel this opens the door for people to call into question what actual history is and why we’re teaching parts of it if they disagree with it or have a different perspective,” Lee said.
Johnston is North Carolina’s seventh-largest school district, with more than 37,000 students.
This story was originally published October 1, 2021 12:06 PM.
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