After 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 Thursday publicly asked the county School Board to press forward with the material.
More than two dozen community members, teachers, former teachers and parents addressed the joint committee on June 1, 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.
Amherst Public Schools Superintendent Rob Arnold said the lesson ultimately is a result of a federal 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 into the schools the Virginia Tiered Systems of Support, 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 the 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 that the district is not required to offer the lessons but should prepare for federal and state laws that may one day require them.
The Amherst 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 critical race theory, and the board recently passed a resolution the prohibits the division from teaching it.
Addressing the board during a public comments period on Thursday, Gloria Witt, president of the Amherst NAACP, said she is frustrated and that 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 teacher, said during the comments period that 8% 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 of critical race theory 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.
Witt encouraged the board to remove barriers and support Arnold and the division’s diversity council moving forward. The community discussion veering toward politics, critical race theory and indoctrinating children is “crazy,” Witt said.