Pennridge schools pause diversity initiatives; NAACP calls it ‘slap in the face’

The board’s vice president, who does not believe in systemic racism, was tasked with reinventing the district’s diversity, equity, and inclusion program.

Pennridge School District (Google maps)

Pennridge School District (Google maps)

On Monday evening, the Pennridge School Board voted 6-1 to pause all Diversity, Equity, Inclusion initiatives, leaving many community members shocked.

Board Vice President Joan Cullen — who earlier in the same board meeting, was appointed to a committee that would examine “what [the district is] going to do to address diversity” — introduced the idea to “take a halt with the DEI activities” in the Upper Bucks County district.

Pennridge Superintendent David Bolton spoke out against the board’s action at the meeting.

“This has not been the district’s recommendation, the administrative recommendation in terms of a step for moving forward,” said Bolton.

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Cullen, who has said on social media that she does not believe in systemic racism, homophobia, or sexism, defended this week’s action as a way for a new committee to address the issue with fresh eyes.

“If we are really going to have a steering committee that’s going to be an honest effort to incorporate everybody, all of our stakeholders, include everyone, and do a thorough examination of what our community needs specifically and what we’re going to do to address diversity, I think we need to stop what we’re doing and do that restart, ” she said during the meeting.

Cullen denied a Keystone Crossroads request for further comment.

Since Monday, the school district has limited access to their “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategic Planning Guide,” requiring a log-in and password to reach the previously public document. They have also removed the web page about their DEI mission. Additionally, community members have reported that their parent-run DEI committees have been disbanded.

The board’s action comes amid a national debate about how to teach race and history in schools, with many conservatives pushing for greater oversight and censorship of political ideology in classrooms.

Lisa Walters was the only board member who voted against the plan, after questioning the intentions of her fellow board members.

“I just feel like this is for optics, quite frankly,” said Walters. “This just to me feels like a show to appease a portion of the community and it’s not going to do anything to unify or help us build or work together.”

NAACP calls it ‘slap in face’

Pennridge is a fairly affluent district with a more conservative political track record, fractured in recent years by disagreements over former President Donald Trump, of whom Cullen is a vocal supporter.

Cullen is no stranger to being a divisive figure within the community: there’s an ongoing petition floating amongst parents demanding her resignation. She has criticized students for protesting gun violence, and was also present during the Capitol insurrection in January, according to photos she posted on her Facebook page.

At this week’s meeting, many parents and students spoke in support of DEI amidst a jam-packed crowd. The auditorium was also full of community members who have historically critiqued the district’s plans to build more racially inclusive environments.

NAACP Bucks County Chapter President John Jordan is among those left wondering why the board gave Cullen power to decide what the district should do about issues regarding diversity.

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“To appoint her, of all people,” said Jordan, “first of all is a slap in the face to everyone who believes in diversity, equity, and inclusion, not only in their schools but in their communities, in their workplaces, and etc. There is systemic racism, it’s a proven fact.”

Dan O’Brien, who focuses on Bucks County for the education advocacy group Children First, spoke at Monday’s board meeting about racial inequality present in academic outcomes in Pennridge schools.

“There is no debating the facts when it comes to how we’re doing as a community for our students of color,” said O’Brien.

According to a 2019 report by Children First — then known as Public Citizens for Children and Youth — white students in Pennridge scored at an average of 22% higher than Black students in English, and 18% higher than Latino students.

“Despite the fact that Black and Hispanic students make up 9% of students in Pennridge, less than 2% that attend schools in Pennridge have access to AP courses,” said O’Brien.

The district’s DEI initiatives began in 2018, with the intention of building “a comprehensive district-wide strategy for sustaining a diverse, inclusive and equitable learning community: a district where every student is affirmed and positioned to reach their full human potential,” according to the district’s guidebook.

The district’s DEI team has expanded since, to “include district employees, students, and family members in the 2020-2021 school year.”

Listed in the guidebook are concrete goals, including providing “culturally and linguistically responsive learning activities for employees, students, and the community to address the fact that within the Pennridge boundaries racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, lack of understanding of our LGBQT+ community, prejudice against our ESL students and non-English speaking students, exists and to embrace diversity of all kinds.”

Community members who have criticized DEI have insisted on more colorblind approaches from schools, and that teaching about white privilege, racism, and gender fluidity is “inappropriate.”

Ricki Chaikin, a candidate in the 2021 Pennridge school board elections, said in one school board meeting that it is “completely out of line for anyone in any capacity at a public school to be giving out this information.”

Jeneal Hobbs, a Black parent of three students in the district, feels the board’s action this week gives those ideas credence.

“It shows us exactly what the board thinks of people of color, and people who are different,” said Hobbs, who was a member of her child’s elementary school DEI committee.

“I feel as though my kids are not safe in the schools,” said Hobbs, who said she may move her kids into private schools, depending on how the year goes.

Heather Sinsel is another parent in the district. Her transgender son has been at the forefront of making the high school a more LGBTQ-supportive environment, including ensuring gender-neutral bathrooms are available for students.

“This is his senior year,” said Sinsel, “and I am now fearful of the environment I am sending him into at Pennridge — knowing there are groups in the area looking to crush all that we have helped build within the school district.”

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