Group questions school officials on diversity

Published 6:00 am Thursday, May 27, 2021

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What are students enrolled in Isle of Wight County public schools being taught with regards to race relations — and can parents opt their children out?

That was the crux of several questions Volpe Boykin, president of the Central and Southern Isle of Wight Citizens Group, posed to the school system’s new coordinator of equity and inclusion, Kiyaana Cox-Jones, and other school officials at a panel discussion the group hosted May 19 at the Windsor Town Center.

Panelists included Jones, School Board Chairwoman Jackie Carr and Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton. While some of the group’s members had emailed their questions ahead of time, others wrote them down on index cards which were then delivered to Boykin to be read aloud anonymously.

Among the specific questions asked concerned whether Critical Race Theory or the 1619 Project would become part of Isle of Wight’s curriculum, and how to opt out if so.

Critical Race Theory, as Dr. Jamel K. Donnor of the College of William & Mary explains, refers to an academic discipline that studies the ways American law has been used to perpetuate and maintain social, economic and political inequality, not exclusive to race, and not necessarily limited to intentional acts of discrimination by individuals. Donnor is an associate professor of education with affiliations in American Studies, Africana Studies and William & Mary’s Center for Racial and Social Justice.

Republicans in a number of states have proposed legislation to ban the teaching of the concept in K-12 schools. In a May 20 letter to Georgia’s State Board of Education, Gov. Brian Kemp called it a “divisive and anti-American curriculum.”

But Donnor says some politicians have turned CRT into a “political football” or “boogeyman,” one being used “to create hysteria, particularly among white folks, unnecessarily.”

Controversy aside, it isn’t currently part of Isle of Wight County Schools’ curriculum here in Virginia, according to Thornton.

Still, “students may come and say, ‘Mr. So-and-So, what is Critical Race Theory? I want them to be able to answer that in what its definition is, not their political opinion,” Thornton said. “But we can’t say, ‘we can’t discuss that here.’ That doesn’t make any sense.”

The 1619 Project is a long-form journalism project of the New York Times, which holds that 1619 — when the first enslaved Africans on the U.S. mainland at Old Point Comfort, now known as Fort Monroe in Hampton — is as pivotal a year in American history as 1776 when the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed. Its lead author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for writing the project’s introductory essay, though the project has become controversial for its claim that the preservation of slavery was among the motivating factors that led the United States to declare independence from England.

The Pulitzer Center, which is unaffiliated with the Pulitzer Prizes, has developed a free curriculum to bring the 1619 Project into school classrooms. Last July, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) proposed legislation to bar federal funds from going to schools using the 1619 curriculum, calling it “a radical work of historical revisionism aiming to indoctrinate our kids to hate America.”

But according to Thornton, the 1619 Project isn’t currently in Isle of Wight County Schools.

Parents can request to view their children’s curriculum, Carr added.

“When my son was at Windsor High School, I did just that,” she said.

Another question asked Jones about an email she had sent to school teachers and staff in April concerning the Dec. 5, 2020 traffic stop in Windsor where town police officers held Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, who is of Black and Latinx descent, at gunpoint and pepper-sprayed him, and the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright in April by a Minneapolis, Minn. police officer who claimed she had mistakenly pulled her gun while reaching for her taser.

In that email, Jones addresses her “BIPOC” colleagues, referring to Black, indigenous and people of color. “I stand with you,” she writes. “I have no sufficient words to tell you how deeply you are on my mind right now. I know you are exhausted, afraid, anxious, angry, and hurt. I am and will continue to listen to you and commit to every action I can take to relieve some of your burdens and create space for you.”

She then addresses all her colleagues, Black and white alike.

“It is imperative that every one of us reflects on our own personal commitment to creating equitable communities and educating ourselves about how our own identities intersect with racial justice,” she writes. “Listen to one another, challenge each other to understand the lived experiences different from your own. We must hold each other accountable. Collectively we will make a difference.”

Jones denied the email was intended to convey her personal opinion of the Windsor traffic stop, stating its purpose rather was to check in with and uplift people of color who may have experienced pain or anguish from either of the recent incidents. She added that she’d sent a similar email in March to support Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders with regards to the national rise in AAPI hate crimes.

“It is essential that we reach out to different identity groups who may experience trauma and support them as a community,” Jones said. “Uplifting one voice doesn’t diminish the voice of others.”

Thornton also weighed in on the matter. He said someone told him after that email was sent, “Dr. Thornton, our white teachers are afraid.”

“And I thought to myself as I’m processing that, why are our white teachers afraid in a 75% dominant white majority school division who have always had a voice because we address this situation to 25% of our faculty and staff who might be feeling differently … and we reached out as human beings and said, ‘Hey, we understand how you might be feeling,’” Thornton said. “Don’t we do that as human beings in other situations? Oh, you lost someone in your family, we reach out and say, ‘that’s awful.’”

“All of this goes to training our staff and our students how to have an educated conversation, which I will say is not happening a lot with adults around the world,” Thornton added. “That is our job as educators. We don’t just teach the facts or math … we are not an isolated bubble, so we need to be prepared to have intelligent conversations and as adults be armed with knowledge.”

The discussion then turned to the transgender policy all Virginia school divisions will be required per a 2020 state law to adopt no later than the upcoming 2021-2022 school year. That same law tasked the Virginia Department of Education with developing model policies for transgender students governing bathroom and locker room usage, protection of student privacy, bullying and harassment, sex-based dress codes and participation in sex-specific school activities, with the exception of athletics — and that local school boards adopt policies consistent with this guidance.

Specifically, one of the attendees wanted to know if students would be “taught they cannot call a girl a girl or a boy a boy.” Another asked about the division’s bathroom policy.

“We do have some teachers that will come right out and say, ‘How do you identify yourself?’ and are ahead of our training,” Thornton said.

As for the bathrooms, “I’ll tell you right now, I know of an incident of a transgender student that walked in and used the boys’ restroom with no one the wiser and nobody knew,” Thornton said. “There’s probably people in the public restrooms where you go that may be female and go into the male restroom and you don’t know.”

That said, he’s not planning to recommend Isle of Wight’s School Board adopt the VDOE’s model policy language verbatim. Rather than adopt language stating that transgender students may use whichever bathrooms or locker rooms correspond to their gender identity, the division plans to put in unisex, single-user bathrooms, Thornton said.

The state language also says if transgender students are not able to safely share with their family members about their gender identify, schools should respect this.

“We disagree with that,” Thornton said.

He also disagrees with the gender-inclusive language the state wants added to student agendas and handbooks, which states that “genitals, buttocks and nipples” must be covered.

“I’m not putting that in the student handbook; I’m going to put the dress code we’ve always had, that a skirt is only so long and stuff that we’ve done in the past,” Thornton said.

“It doesn’t mean that when I came these issues popped up,” Jones added. “These student concerns were already here … there are staff members who we don’t know of who may identify differently with the LGBTQIA community, and again, part of my position is creating a sense of belonging for everyone.”