The national argument over critical race theory reaches Souderton school district

In a screenshot from Zoom, Souderton School Board President Ken Keith speaks at a school board meeting

Souderton School Board President Ken Keith speaks at a school board meeting on June 17, 2021. (Zoom)

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It was unclear just how many members of the community were packed into the high school cafeteria, but for those watching the Souderton Area School Board’s meeting virtually on Zoom, the room felt shoulder-to-shoulder, based on the constant roar of applause and intermittent shouts from the audience.

Though it was difficult to say what the headcount was, some word counts were possible. The word “equity” was mentioned 92 times. The word “race” and its various forms, 57 times. The word “white,” 51 times.

The way the words were used spoke volumes.

“I’ve been told I’m white. But when I compare my skin tone to this white sheet of paper, it’s obvious that I am not white on the color spectrum. White means no color, and I do not, in fact, know or have ever seen any people of no color or white. We are all people of color,” said Jeanne Haynes of Green Lane.

“Critical race theory is no joke. These folks want us to pay them to train our teachers to see how irredeemably racist they and we all are,” Haynes told the crowd in the cafeteria.

The often-fiery national argument over critical race theory and the 1619 Project flared once again in the Philadelphia area Thursday night in Souderton, at a meeting that lasted roughly three hours.

The school district serves several of Montgomery County’s smaller towns: Souderton and Telford boroughs, and Franconia, Lower Salford, Salford and Upper Salford townships. But the nationwide debate over race and anti-racism exists no matter a community’s population.

And just as in other places across the United States, the issue didn’t appear out of thin air at the Souderton School Board meeting. It was the culmination of a year of boiling frustration, claims of bigotry, and clashes among parents, school board members, and the community at large.

Add in a fast-approaching school board race with four seats up for grabs.

“We are all free and created equal. People have already fought bloody, horrific wars to protect our freedoms to fight for equality for all men and women. We have already fought segregation in the Civil War. We have already gone through the Civil Rights Movement. Critical race theory will create more racism and segregation,” said Becky Phipps of Telford.

Critical race theory is not a new school curriculum by any means. It is a decades-old framework that was conceptualized in the 1970s and 1980s by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and Patricia Williams, among others.

The basic idea is that race is a social construct that permeates many aspects of life in the United States, such as the legal system and social structures — and that racism is a systemic issue, not an individual one. Though critical race theory was initially designed to inform the field of law, it expanded into areas of academia.

Currently, critical race theory is sometimes used in college-level legal studies courses and other academic areas, but not typically in first-grade classrooms. But that hasn’t stopped it from being vilified by people who take issue with diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism efforts.

Conservative state legislatures across the country have drafted legislation against the teaching of critical race theory and the 1619 Project in schools — a move that some educators fear will be used to prevent them from teaching about racism and the history of the country. (How, for example, the Civil War was about slavery, not segegation. Though discussed before the Civil War, segregation was a postwar phenomenon.)

Souderton School Board President Ken Keith appeared to tip his hand on the issue at the start of the meeting.

“Other topics have been thrusted into the forefront of national discussions and have made their way into all communities. I would like to be clear on two of these topics. In Souderton, we are not following or teaching critical race theory in our schools, any more than we are following—” Keith said as the crowd interrupted him with a 30-second round of applause.

He finished his thought by likening critical race theory to communism and said that it may only be mentioned in discussion.

“In addition, on the topic of implicit bias training, the Souderton Area School District is not mandating or funding this training,” Keith said. “… In short, we will not allow a political agenda to dictate a departure from what we know to be a solid successful educational practice that has served our students well.”

Keith concluded his opening remarks by acknowledging that the district would be undergoing “a comprehensive planning process which is required by the Pennsylvania Department of Education every three years,” and that in this process, equity will be examined.

WHYY News reached out to Keith as well as several others in leadership positions at the school district, but did not receive responses.

Problem conversations

Richard Detwiler, a retired teacher, did not speak during the board meeting, but he said he is concerned about the area where he sent his now-adult children to school. He said that the group of parents opposed to teaching about race and racism in schools has latched onto words and phrases like critical race theory as a “source of divisiveness and negativity.”

“I’m really sort of surprised and shocked by the very loud voices, both nationally and locally here in the community, that have a problem with those conversations and want to call them un-American and unpatriotic,” Detwiler said.

He went to the board meeting in person to observe the back-and-forth, but Detwiler said it is far from novel.

Shortly after the police killing of George Floyd last June in Minneapolis, the Souderton area, like many other places, looked in the mirror for a reckoning. A local activist with the Movement for Black and Brown Lives in Montgomery County organized a “well-attended” march.

And though many were complacent with the status quo, some community members were not and urged the school district to address equity concerns. Not long after the appeal from community members, Superintendent Frank Gallagher wrote a letter regarding equity in the Souderton Area School District.

“We unequivocally condemn acts of race-based violence and any intolerant rhetoric which seeks to divide us. In SASD, we actively work to build an inclusive school community that values diversity, and we stand united against hate in any form,” Gallagher wrote.

In the letter, Gallagher announced the creation of an equity committee “to examine these issues and to develop a comprehensive action plan with the input of stakeholders across our community.”

A year later, the concerned parents are still waiting to learn the findings of the committee. And since last June, community relations have grown more hostile. The school board has barred Carmina Taylor, a co-founder of the Movement for Black and Brown Lives in Montgomery County, from speaking during their meetings. They say it’s because she doesn’t live in the district.

According to Detwiler, the committee was supposed to engage in the so-called “equity audit” this summer — which set off the alarms among conservative parents already amped up by the coming school board election.

“We can’t really know to what extent our schools, for example, are the safe and welcoming places that we would like them to be and that we think they are, without doing the kind of equity audit that has been proposed and ostensibly planned to begin this summer,” Detwiler said.

Roughly 80% of the Souderton Area School District’s nearly 6,500 students are white.

A collection of parents formed a Facebook group called Soudy Strong Conservatives at the end of March. WHYY News requested access to the group to speak with some of its nearly 450 members, but has not been allowed in. However, this statement appears on the group’s “about” page.

“This group is for conservatives in the Souderton Area School District who stand with the Souderton School Board in preserving the traditional educational model that raises proud Americans. We support full-time in-person education and stand against radical ideology such as The 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, and Comprehensive Sexuality Education. Let’s let kids be kids and academics be academics … and let’s leave politics and gender studies to the collegiate levels.

#andYESweareforUNMASKINGourchildrentoo!”

WHYY News was able to get in contact with Dana Vesey, a Souderton parent with two middle schoolers. She is one of the three administrators of the Soudy Strong Conservatives Facebook group.

She characterized the last year in Souderton and the buzz around the school board as an example of politicization. She said that organizing through school boards is just the accessible way to address concerns that are “bigger as a whole with the movement of the country.”

Vesey said she couldn’t speak for the Soudy Strong Conservative group, since it was formed by Kaitlin Derstine, a parent actively involved with the Parents For In Person Education group in Montgomery County.

But Vesey did offer her perspective on the critical race theory debate.

“I do not believe in these mass teachings of things like critical race theory, or anything that’s going to result in critical race theory. I’m not sold that they are a proven positive solution,” Vesey said.

Dru Shelly, a Harleysville parent, said she was shocked to see the formation of such a group. She sees many of the members at church, softball, and other community events.

“It just breaks my heart that they are so afraid for their kids that they can’t open themselves up to a different perspective,” Shelly said.

She attributed the strong opinions to a lack of factual information. Though Shelly does hold the opposing parents accountable for their own viewpoints, she pointed the finger more at the school board, which she said has been unable to stay unbiased.

“The board has their own ideas that they discuss amongst themselves, and their supporters are quite loud and their supporters are welcome to come to the meeting and say whatever they’d like in front of the camera, including giving advice on who to vote for in the upcoming election,” Shelly said.

Motivated to stop the conservative group of parents, other parents created a Facebook group called SASD Parents for Unity in May. The group has amassed a membership of more than 100 people, though they are largely outnumbered by the opposing faction.

Parent Stephanie Jamison, a founding member of the group, believes the situation in the school district is a cause for concern.

“As I’ve been engaging and organizing in this community, I’ve received countless phone calls from families telling me their firsthand experiences with the school districts and in our schools and their heartbreaking stories. And people are scared of intimidation, they’re scared of violence for speaking out,” Jamison said.

She pointed to a well-documented growing achievement and disciplinary gap in Souderton as a reason why an equity audit is needed.

Spurred to action

According to a 2021 report from Public Citizens for Children and Youth, there was a more than 25% reading and math score gap between Black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts in Souderton district schools. ProPublica’s Miseducation project found large gaps in opportunity, discipline, and achievement between students of color and white students in Souderton schools.

Jamison said the data shocked her into action. She said that previous conversations regarding educational equity were squashed, and that the board’s barring of Carmina Taylor as a speaker helped inspire the formation of the new Facebook group.

“I was ashamed of how they were treating this woman from the community who’s really invested in educational equity and who has expertise and information to share with us. And she was being obstructed from participating,” Jamison said.

Jamison credited Taylor and other members of her group for bringing issues regarding educational equity to light.

Taylor was present during Thursday night’s school board meeting and said she has been barred three times from speaking. Though the board says that’s because she is not a resident of the district, Taylor pointed to its policy manual, which states, “The Board requires that public participants be residents of this district or anyone having registered a legitimate interest in a contemplated action of the Board; anyone representing a group in the community or school district…”

Because Taylor represents a countywide organization and several community members permitted her to speak on their behalf, she believes that she is qualified to speak. A petition to allow her to speak at a previous school board meeting had 40 community signatures.

During Thursday’s meeting, a group of parents led by Kaitlin Derstine, of Soudy Strong Conservatives, led an 18-minute charge against Taylor, critical race theory, and any talks regarding equity.

Even though speakers were supposed to be limited to 3-minute comments, Derstine’s remarks were allowed to be read in their entirety as long as other parents picked up and read from where the last one left off.

Reading from Derstine’s written comments, one parent in the group, Ashley Peterson of Harleysville, attempted to address the achievement gap by making generalizations about the Black community.

“As for our African American community, I found that it can be culturally normative to start their children in school in first grade, which can put them a year or two behind other children. Many have also moved here more recently from the city, which is coming from a different school system that has different standards. So this gap in test scores is very easily answered without an equity audit,” Peterson said.

When Derstine’s last surrogate finished speaking, the cafeteria broke out into another round of applause.

In an interview, Taylor accused School Board President Keith of creating a combative environment with his opening speech.

“When have you ever heard a school board president open a meeting like that? Why would he do that?” Taylor asked.

Critical race theory is not taught in K-12 Souderton classrooms and no one at the meeting proposed that it should be. Taylor said she believes that the parents speaking out against her were using rhetoric designed to cloud judgment. Taylor added, however, that she was able to have positive discussions with Vesey of the Soudy Strong Conservatives before Thursday night.

Parents at the podium

Throughout the more than three-hour-long meeting, parents from both groups came to the podium and delivered remarks to the audience.

Noah Bass of Lower Salford said his daughter was the victim of antisemitism in the district. Though he extended his thanks to staff members who advocated for his daughter, he had tough questions for the district regarding the perceived lack of attention being brought to the issue as a whole.

“We’re also aware that the undercurrent of racism and intolerance that exists in our schools has been getting worse. Worsening patterns of overt usage of hate speech, derogatory slurs, and symbols of hate are fueled by students’ unchecked behavior. Throughout this entire school year, we have heard our kids tell us how commonly racist and homophobic slurs are whispered, spoken, and screened in the classrooms, hallways, and school buses of our school district, and nothing is done about it,” Bass said.

Charl Wilner said she found it “interesting” that an all-white school board and a nearly all-white audience was having a conversation about race and “saying, ‘Wow, I have no idea what anybody’s talking about.’”

She accused board members of being obtuse and said they had no interest in teaching an increasingly diverse student body about the “real honest history” of the United States.

In an interview prior to the school board meeting, parent Stephanie Jamison also zeroed in on a changing America — and a changing Souderton, and why she believes the board has to do more if it wants to serve the entire community.

“I think a frequent comment I’ve heard from the school board is, ‘We know that demographics are shifting.’ But the reality is the demographics started shifting like 40 years ago. And like, I’m not sure how much they have to shift before they realize that, you know, there are people of color in our community, and we need to be intentional about making this community inclusive and safe for everyone,” Jamison said.

Though the meeting came to a conclusion — or rather, went into an extended recess — parents from both groups don’t expect the issues to go away anytime soon. There are school board seats in play, and a national conversion that shows no signs of ending.

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