Officials in the Wellesley Public Schools system have found themselves at odds with parents and other critics alarmed at what they see as further degradation of education because of an obsession with anti-racism.
Wellesley is not alone in focusing its resources and teaching on aspects of racism in America. Since the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd last spring, the ascent of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a renewed emphasis on teaching critical race theory in public schools, school systems nationwide have been adding diversity, equity, and inclusion offerings.
But as they do so, districts find themselves butting heads with parents and others alarmed at the extent to which discussion of race has been forced into schools.
Critical race theory is a scholarly framework taught in graduate studies based on the notion that historical patterns of racism are encoded in law and other modern American institutions. Critics of CRT contend that it is divisive rather than unifying. Rather than promoting a better understanding of bigotry and America’s legacy of racism, CRT in practice could label white students, by virtue of skin color alone, as fundamentally racist and part of a group of historical oppressors, and Black students oppressed victims of that systemic racism.
And there’s legitimate cause for concern. Although CRT is not being formally taught in K-12, its concepts are seeping into the mainstream. CRT seemingly brings with it an unspoken set of rules about who may say what to whom, and so speech that can be interpreted as hateful, bigoted, offensive, harmful, or insulting is often suppressed, even punished, a situation that the courts have regularly found violates free speech rights — even if the motivation is well-intentioned and seeks a social good.
The focus on race in schools has meant that teachers and school officials have begun to treat those affected by racism differently. In March, for example, in the wake of a mass shooting at spas in the Atlanta-area, during which six women of Asian descent were killed, the Wellesley school system’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion hosted a Zoom session described as a “Healing Space for Asian and Asian American students (grades 6-12), faculty/staff, and others in the BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) community who wish to process recent events.”
Noticeably absent from the invitation were white students. How was that decision justified by Wellesley officials? “Note,” read the invitation from Michele Gabrielson, a Wellesley middle school teacher and member of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, “this is a safe space for our Asian/Asian-American and Students of Color, ‘not’ for students who identify only as White. If you identify as White, and need help to process recent events, please know I’m here for you as well as your guidance counselors.” In response, the organization Parents Defending Education filed a complaint with the Biden administration, saying the action was racial segregation.
Wellesley has also recently instituted a reporting system so that students, faculty, and staff can anonymously report instances of racism, bigotry, and other unwelcome speech and behavior.
As articulated in its policy statement, “Responding to Bias-based Incidents,” a bias incident is “any biased conduct, speech or expression that has an impact but may not involve criminal action, but demonstrates conscious or unconscious bias that targets individuals or groups that are part of a federally protected class …”
The troubling policy suggests that students and parents can file complaints so that transgressors can be identified and punished. “Potential disciplinary actions for students who violate the anti-discrimination policy,” the policy reads, “could include detention, suspension, or,” in language that Cotton Mather might have written, “other restorative responses that require them to acknowledge their responsibility and minimize its impact.”
But contrary to the spirit of the Wellesley policy, the courts have repeatedly found that schools cannot censure and punish speech they do not like because of the content of that speech alone, and that students — even if they are bigoted, hateful, rude, offensive, or cruel — do not lose their First Amendment rights simply by being students in a public school system.
In the seminal case on this topic, Tinker v. Des Moines, for example, the court found that “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” and the right to express oneself, even hatefully, was sacrosanct, providing the speech is not excessively and obviously disruptive to school activities or operations.
Most people of conscience seek schools — and a society — in which bigotry and racism are absent. But in the effort to create a place where tolerance prevails, schools need to be cautious about indoctrinating some students on how they are victims of oppression and how they should identify as such, and how other students, by virtue of their whiteness alone, are oppressors and should apologize for such, instead of fostering racial equity and coexistence.