A proposed policy change that would restrict school athletic teams and gender-segregated facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms to students with the corresponding reproductive organs failed to find support with two of the Moore County Board of Education’s three policy committee members on Thursday.
So did new policies — proposed by committee chair Robert Levy — delaying new North Carolina social studies standards some believe to be influenced by what’s known as Critical Race Theory. Levy’s proposed changes also called for renouncing that school of thought and any potential curriculum based on it.
Those debates are not over, though. They will soon move to the full board without the endorsement of the full committee. Libby Carter and Ed Dennison, the other two policy committee members, said that they won’t support the changes.
Thursday’s committee meeting began with an hour spent behind closed doors receiving confidential legal advice. The committee agreed to some policy changes that clarify the procedure for adding agenda items to upcoming meetings and allow for public comment via telephone. Those will move to the full board for approval.
But the bulk of the two-and-a-half hour open session dealt with the controversial matters. The first was a proposed addition to the board’s existing discrimination and harassment policies. It would prohibit preferential treatment of students and staff who are racial minorities or in another legally protected class.
“It also seeks to get rid of the whole idea that you can discriminate so long as you discriminate against a person of a majority race or a majority ethnicity or a majority group,” Levy said.
The board’s existing policies specifically prohibit unreasonable or unfavorable treatment of any individual based on race, color, national origin, religion or disability.
“This actually is adequately covered in the paragraph that’s already in here, that we are not going to discriminate intentionally or unintentionally, based on any one of those categories,” Carter said. “I think it opens a divide among the equity of treatment when we begin to dig into it this way.”
Dennison brought up federally designated Title I schools that receive additional funding according to the population of students from low-income families enrolled there. Levy said that the policy’s definition of discrimination is based on legal designations that don’t include socioeconomic background.
“What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to create a meritocracy, and in creating a meritocracy rather than a free pass based upon the color of your skin or our ethnicity, then we need to give our economically disadvantaged students the extra help that they certainly need,” said Levy.
“It was rather obvious that there is certainly a split between certain board members, and I was not likely to get this passed through this committee today, but that does not mean that I’m not going to still push it because I feel extremely strongly about making sure that when we deal as a school we do not deal with things such as we do not promote critical race theory or we do not discriminate in any way and we are a colorblind educational institution,” Levy said, restating the word “colorblind” twice.
Race — and how public schools’ social studies classes deal with racism throughout the nation’s history — has already become an incendiary topic in education throughout the state.
In February, the State Board of Education approved new social studies standards aimed at incorporating the experiences of minorities and marginalized groups as well as their perspectives on government, economic systems and historic events. The new standards are timed along with a realignment of high school history and civics courses, but apply from kindergarten up.
The state Department of Public Instruction is in the process of developing a full curriculum based on the new standards. The Moore County Board of Education is scheduled to conduct a more thorough review of the standards and how they’ll actually be taught in classrooms during its May work session.
The full school board, during its meeting last Monday, heard from eight speakers alarmed by the new standards and their perceived connection to Critical Race Theory. Those speakers included members of the Moore County Republican Women, who bestowed upon each board member and Superintendent Bob Grimesey more than 100 typed letters in support of their position.
An impassioned speech from Pauline Bruno, president of the Republican women’s group, prompted a standing ovation from most of the room, including Levy and board members David Hensley and Philip Holmes.
“My concern is that our schoolchildren are not sufficiently mature to be able to understand the difference between critical race theory that is creating division rather than prompting friendship,” said Kay Wildt.
“Highlighting privilege, labeling people as oppressors or oppressed in curriculum sends the wrong message that is destructive to mental health and to children’s self esteem. I urge Moore County Schools to reject Critical Race Theory and its hurtful teaching.”
Another two speakers voiced support for the new standards and a new approach to how racism is addressed in history classes.
Levy plans to bring the proposed policy which would prohibit any curriculum based on Critical Race Theory before the full board.
The policy would provide for discussion of that theory at the appropriate age and education level. Critical Race Theory posits that race is an artificial social construct with no basis in human biology, and that at the same time it is intertwined in American institutions resulting in continued exploitation and oppression of minorities.
“I don’t want Critical Race Theory taught without context in our schools,” said Levy.
“When you’re teaching Critical Race Theory — that race is used by white people to further their economic and political interest at the expense of people of color — you’re teaching racism and that is wrong.”
But committee members agreed to postpone further discussion of the new social studies standards until after the full board’s review next month.
Carter’s primary objection to the policy as proposed was a matter of appropriateness and precedent. She said that such a policy is tantamount to micromanaging teachers and sets the stage for further policies on the teaching of other contentious topics, like evolution.
“Do I agree with Critical Race Theory? I’m not going there, I’m not touching that right now,” she said. “That’s not the part of it that I think is of concern. I think the concern is, ‘is this something that belongs in our policy manual,’ and I’m not sure that it does.”
She did agree that, although the new state standards don’t explicitly mention Critical Race Theory or its tenets, “they came close.”
“They’re never going to say this is based on critical race theory, but when you look at the standards and the standards basically teach children that they are part of a group — not that they are part of the United States of America but they are part of a particular racial or ethnic group — that is tribalism,” said Levy. “Tribalism is the basis of discord throughout world history.”
The school board has no other policy either forbidding or mandating a specific topic or curriculum.
“It feels really strange to have a policy on a theory,” said Dennison.
“Evolution — certainly that is something that was dealt with a long, long time ago but you can’t say if you’re for it or against it, you’re un-American,” Levy replied. “Racism is un-American.”
Dennison also suggested that some of the reaction to the new social studies standards may be overwrought and said he read some of the statements in the 133 letters he received from the Republican women’s group on Monday with incredulity.
“White students taught that white skin automatically means you’re a racist, they’re being taught their color is evil, they’re thinking that they are oppressors? All these things I’m sure are not going on in our schools,” he said.
“Our children in grade school being taught that if they were born white, they’re evil? I mean, ridiculous stuff.”
Dennison said he won’t make a decision on how Moore County Schools should handle the new social studies standards until he understands it beyond the encyclopedia definition of Critical Race Theory that Levy offered, and the full curriculum comes down from the state.
At this point it’s unclear whether the board has the option to opt out or delay implementation of those standards.
“I think we need to know what it is. Screw the definition, let’s see what’s expected of us with this,” said Dennison. “People are jumping all over the place — ‘it’s Critical Race Theory!’ — and I still don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing if we were to even implement this program.”
Transgender Policy Disputed
Dennison and Carter also flatly declined to support adding a localized version of North Carolina’s infamous and long since repealed “bathroom bill” to the board’s existing Title IX policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex.
Levy presented the policy as a way to protect the privacy of cisgender children who would be embarrassed to share a bathroom or locker room with a child of the other biological sex.
“I deeply and truly believe that children should not be part of social experimentation and that it is proper, when dealing with children, to give them their private spaces,” said Levy.
The proposed policy establishes the sex listed on a student’s birth certificate as the determinant of which spaces they’re permitted to use. But it also directs the superintendent to “consult with an appropriate medical authority to make the appropriate determination” in cases that are not easily resolved.
During the discussion, Levy said that the approach does not constitute discrimination against transgender students, who he also referred to as “gender dysphoric” and “transsexual.”
“What we are saying to them is that you are biologically a certain way and therefore you are going to have to … go into either a male’s personal space or a female’s personal space based upon that biological gender,” he said.
“We do have to deal with all students and one of the problems is we are sacrificing the privacy of the vast majority in order to accommodate the political will of the extreme minority.”
Dennison responded to the proposal as a solution in search of a problem. As proposed, the policy would allow for school administrators to designate a “third personal space,” which is more or less how the issue is handled as it is.
“I know that we have several of these children in our schools and I know the principals are taking care of it,” he said. “I’m not aware of any problems, and as far as I know the men aren’t going into girls’ bathrooms. Principals are making accommodations for those students.”
Carter anticipated legal challenges to any such policy, and shied away from bringing any authority over individual students’ sex or gender under the school board’s purview.
“The idea that we would have our superintendent consult with a medical authority and invade a child’s life and the life of the family to determine their identification is stepping way beyond all bounds that I feel like our school system needs to encounter,” she said.
“Our goal is to support every student, not single out one who is already having critical issues within his or her life, to be able to allow the comfort of a safe, secure situation in their school and I think this is a step towards singling them out and persecuting them rather than providing them with support.”
The committee also agreed to temporarily set aside proposed amendments to the board’s academic freedom policy that would prohibit teachers from advocating for any political candidate, party or point of view within the classroom setting.
All three members supported the idea but plan to review and consider an existing N.C. School Boards Association policy dealing with employees’ political activities.
“I think we all agree, said Carter, “that none of us support a teacher trying to force-feed from a position of authority.”