“I came away hopeful.”
by Lois Kieffaber
Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Committee Member
I went to the September 12th meeting of the Mead School Board during which two controversial proposals were to get their second reading. The first would ban from the elementary library section any books that hinted at gender fluidity, and the second would ban any teaching of “critical race theory.” I carried with me a statement from the PJALS’ Showing Up for Racial Justice group with the intention to read it during the public comment time.
The parking lot of the Meeting’s venue was full with many, many cars parked up and down both sides of the street. A police car was parked just outside the door where we entered. The huge gymnasium was around three-quarters full by the time I arrived. People were also lined up around the edges of the gym. The energy in the room was evident; the entire two rows of people behind where I was sitting were loudly supportive of both proposals. But I heard no swearing or name-calling except references to “activist teachers.”
To address the complaint about gender issues in elementary children’s books, the Head Librarian went through in detail the process and number of groups consulted before adding any book to the library system. There was also a detailed process for handling complaints, but in fact less than 5 parents had even gotten to the first step of speaking to their children’s teacher or librarian. And the policy was absolutely clear that parents were responsible for which books their children checked out, and that any named book would not be available to any child whose parents asked that it be withheld.
To allay fears about “critical race theory,” an entire history lesson was laid out for the group to see. The questions raised by the history teacher required students to look at many sides of an issue before taking a position. However some audience members were fearful that the “activist teachers” (a name given to teachers who wanted to teach the truth about America’s racist history) would somehow work their biased beliefs in between each line of the. Lesson plan.
Public comments alternated “pro” and “con” speakers, each having two minutes, timed by a huge clock up front that all could see. .Although asked many times to not applaud and cheer, the crowd continuously expressed their pleasure or displeasure vocally. Various members of the audience shouted down anyone who went beyond their two minutes. During the break I took the PJALS’ statement to the Board, two members of which seemed very happy to have an opinion in writing that could be read later. At that time it was clear that many people who signed up to speak would simply not fit into the time remaining at the meeting.
After hearing so many non-productive shouting matches over politics in the past four years, I was happy to be at an event that involved so many people, most with strong feelings, who wanted to participate in decision-making without storming the barricades. I came away hopeful. I was pleased with the Mead School Board’s ultimate decision to reject both proposals in favor of trusting our teachers and librarians to act in the best interests of their students.
“Thankful for the Preservation of Academic Freedom”
by Jennifer Calvert
As a retired high school teacher (math, Ferris HS), I have continued to maintain an interest in what’s happening in local education issues. So when the Mead School District Board of Directors announced their intention to consider two separate proposed policies that would ban any books and materials referencing gender identity in elementary school libraries and the compulsory teaching of “‘Critical Race Theory’ curricula or ideology” in civics education, I decided to attend the board meeting September 12.
According to district policy, the board only needs two readings on policy changes before they can vote on them. This meeting accomplished that second reading, and there was to be testimony from the public, followed by the board vote on adopting (or not) the two new policies.
Over 100 people signed up to testify, so the board chose to limit testimony to two minutes per person, and in the end, only 60 people were able to speak (otherwise, the meeting would have lasted until midnight!). The crowd was mixed in its support for the policy changes, and the board chairman had his hands full keeping the clapping and booing from occasionally erupting. The youngest person to testify was a nine-year-old girl who was so calm and self-assured that the impressed crowd gave her an ovation even if they didn’t agree with her position (she was against the policies).
A group of social studies teachers gathered around the podium in support of a designated spokesman; they were strongly opposed to changes that would muzzle them as they make professional choices in their classrooms regarding curriculum and topics of discussion.
Impassioned parents spoke on both sides of the debate. They lauded the district for its great reputation as an educational institution, with wonderful teachers, and yet some still insisted that certain curricular choices should not be the teachers’ choice to make. Interesting contradiction….
As the evening progressed, with so many parents who obviously supported the policy changes, I felt the school board’s decision was going to be problematic. As is true for many political issues today, it’s difficult to figure out any sort of middle ground. After two hours of testimony, the board cut off allowing more speakers, and each board member gave his/her own opinion, and the vote was taken: three to two against adopting the new policies. I was surprised but relieved, and thankful for the preservation of academic freedom, even though the fight of course isn’t over, by a long shot.