Jeeva Senthilnathan, a sophomore at Colorado School of Mines, poses for a portrait on June 23, 2021. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
Facing parent pushback over a new educational equity policy, Douglas County School District leaders have insisted the policy doesn’t affect the district curriculum.
That’s true: While the equity policy has been labeled by some parents as a covert attempt to teach aspects of critical race theory — the academic framework for examining how systems like housing and politics marginalize racial groups — Douglas County’s equity policy establishes a system for identifying racist practices and discriminatory behaviors, and addressing concerns about bias, racism and discrimination. The Colorado Department of Education, meanwhile, develops academic standards that determine curriculum.
But some community members, including recent graduate Jeeva Senthilnathan, think Douglas County parents and students should learn more about systemic racism.
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“As a Brown child, I faced so much bullying within DCSD schools,” Senthilnathan said in an interview.
Senthilnathan — a former Parker Town Council candidate who is now 19 and a sophomore at Colorado School of Mines — attended Douglas County schools for 11 years. She stays engaged with school board meetings and is defending Douglas County School District’s new equity policy.
As the daughter of Indian immigrants attending school in one of the whitest communities in Colorado, Senthilnathan told Newsline she was ostracized, verbally bullied and beaten up, while teachers didn’t seem to care.
“It’d be, like, me getting beaten up at recess and there would be … teachers who would be monitoring other students out on recess, and they would just watch,” Senthilnathan said. “They would just stand there and watch and do absolutely nothing about it.”
But in a time when “critical race theory” has become a hot-button term for conservative politicians and advocates — who argue that teaching about systemic racism unfairly portrays racial groups as oppressors and oppressed — Douglas County School District’s new educational equity policy is the wrong approach for some parents.
At the core of critical race theory is the idea “that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies,” according to a recent article in Education Week. Under critical race theory, racist policies include those that devalued homes in Black and Brown communities, or those that underfund school districts serving Black and Brown students.
School district policies and concepts taught in classrooms are “being influenced by critical race theory, and then it’s manifesting in a lot of ways that are maybe the opposite of what (school leaders) were trying to achieve,” Rachel Kopfle, the Colorado chapter president of conservative group No Left Turn for Education, told Newsline.
Focus on equity sparks backlash
The Douglas County School District board approved the equity policy, which doesn’t say anything about teaching critical race theory, in March.
First, the policy says the district’s board will not condone the following:
• “Biased, inequitable, racist, or exclusive practices”
• “Discriminatory behaviors that disproportionately impact any particular group or groups of individuals based on aspect of their collective identity”
• “Practices that promote inequality or inequity”
• “Deficit-focused instructional or operational implementation frameworks,” meaning policies that focus on shortcomings or weaknesses of particular groups
• “Perpetuation of racism or discrimination”
• “Policies and resolutions that support exclusion or intolerance”
The equity policy continues by committing the district to “implement a targeted system” to identify any of those prohibited practices. Under the policy, the district must also develop a “restorative process” to address concerns, “repair harm” and “eradicate any future inequities.”
The already-existing Equity Advisory Council would help the district recruit and retain diverse staff, the equity policy also says.
Much of the parent pushback on the equity policy came after a keynote address and community session on diversity, equity and inclusion that was provided by consulting firm Gemini Group LLC in April. Gemini Group’s website says the training it provides educational institutions encompasses the review of policies through an “equity lens,” increasing diversity among faculty and staff, and reducing internal and external biases.
“The keynote address with Gemini Group was intended for staff, but accessible to anyone as the event was virtual,” district spokesperson Paula Hans said in an email. “The Gemini Group training for staff and the community has been permanently cancelled.”
Hans added the trainings originally scheduled with Gemini Group were funded completely through an Expelled and At-Risk Student Services grant from the Colorado Department of Education. The group was refunded for trainings the district canceled in May, Hans said.
In recent days, parent accusations and anger over critical race theory have erupted at numerous Colorado school districts. These include Cherry Creek School District, which, according to CBS4 Denver, had plans to make history lessons more inclusive of different races and cultures. Falcon School District 49 will vote on a motion to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools, KOAA News 5 reported.
Douglas County parents who are opposed to the equity policy have zeroed in on the Gemini Group’s April address and community session. Many oppose the group’s teachings about equity, a term that refers to meeting students’ unique learning needs and helping kids who belong to a marginalized identity group to overcome factors that stack the deck against them.
Several parents who spoke at a June 22 Douglas County school board meeting said they would prefer the term “equality,” which they see as the same education for all kids regardless of race, gender, or disability.
“The equity policy reads well and I really like it, but as it is being implemented, there is a disconnect,” said Lora Wolfe, who told board members she had pulled her two children out of the district as a result of the equity policy. “In an effort to be less divisive, my proposal is for you to change the name of the equity team to the equal opportunity team and to change the name of the educational equity policy to the educational equal opportunity policy. No one should be denied access to an equal opportunity to better themselves.”
Julie Bateman, an elementary school teacher who works at a neighboring school district, said she was heartbroken to hear some of the parent comments against the equity policy.
“For too long, Douglas County students, teachers and staff of color have been targets of racism and racist comments,” Bateman said at the board meeting. “Our students with special needs have not had all their needs met. Our LGBTQ community has been shamed or erased, and many of these students have not been represented in our history books or classroom libraries.”
Colorado parents involved with No Left Turn for Education “absolutely do not mean” their opposition to Douglas County’s equity policy “as a personal attack on a person of color or LGBTQ or anything of that nature,” the group’s chapter president, Rachel Kopfle, said. “We’re actually seeing it create division and resentment and more bigotry, not less.”
Kopfle said lessons about systemic racism that overemphasize racial, ethnic or other forms of identity can sow division among students by “telling them how to define themselves.” She worries about consequences of the No Place for Hate program framework developed by the Anti-Defamation League, which several parents excoriated during the board meeting June 22. District schools began participating in the No Place for Hate program before the board approved the equity policy.
The No Place for Hate program is aimed at increasing student awareness of and education around diversity, respect and prejudice — but Kopfle thinks it puts too much emphasis on identity and privilege.
“A lot of kids, if you ask them, ‘What do you want people to know about you?’ … to get them to describe who they are and what’s important to them, a lot of times that’s not going to have anything to do with race or gender,” Kopfle said.
Drew Middleton, a Douglas County student who spoke during the June 22 school board meeting, argued that the No Place for Hate program helped marginalized students and gave them a way to talk about their experiences. Accusations from some parents that the program politically indoctrinates students were “simply untrue,” he said.
“I’ve had my share of negative experiences within this community,” Middleton said. “From being called slurs online to being harassed in school for my sexual orientation, I’ve heard it all. … It is clear that something needs to be done about discrimination in our community.”
States censor lessons on systemic racism
While the equity policy doesn’t affect curriculum, one of Colorado’s statewide high school history standards does pertain to teaching about systemic racism. The standard requires students to “analyze historical time periods and patterns of continuity and change, through multiple perspectives, within and among cultures and societies.” Under this standard, students must learn to “examine and evaluate issues of unity and diversity from Reconstruction to present. For example: the systemic impact of racism and nativism, role of patriotism, expansion of rights, and the role of religion.”
The State Board of Education periodically reviews and revises academic standards, which form the basis for educational curriculum.
Other states with Republican-majority legislatures have passed laws that profess to ban the teaching of critical race theory. They include Oklahoma, which prohibited teaching that people are inherently racist or sexist, or hold unconscious or conscious biases, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Oklahoma and Iowa’s new laws prohibit schools from including lessons that teach “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”
Tennessee’s new law restricts teachers from discussing racism with students.
Some educators and students, however, question whether schools adequately teach the history of racism or represent perspectives of non-white communities — even in those states, such as Colorado, without critical race theory bans in place.
Senthilnathan said her classes in Douglas County School District taught a “white-washed” history and rarely mentioned systemic racism. A U.S. history class “made Christopher Columbus seem like he was a good guy” without mentioning the harms Columbus perpetrated on Indigenous people, she said.
That sentiment lines up with a recent report from America’s Promise, a nonpartisan, nonprofit coalition of nonprofits, businesses, local communities, teachers and community members around the country.
The poll — conducted with the help of Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit — found that slightly over half, or 55%, of high school students reported discussing race or racism in school. Two-thirds of students reported they were taught about the history of racism in the U.S. Three out of five students said their school curriculum at least sometimes represented non-white communities.
Researchers conducted the poll over a six-week period in March and April. They surveyed 2,439 high schoolers nationwide, between the ages of 13 and 19.
As a mechanical engineering student, Senthilnathan still makes time for Douglas County School Board meetings.
“To be true to our motto ‘learning today, and leading tomorrow,’ DCSD must have a policy of inclusion, so that teachers should demonstrate the value of diversity, leveraging equitable practices,” Senthilnathan wrote in written testimony she addressed to the school board June 1. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion should be discussed and taught within Douglas County School families and in schools for there to be somewhat of a bearable environment for children of color.”
Students should learn about respect for other cultures, Senthilnathan said.
“There’d be plenty of times when I’d bring my Indian food into the cafeteria and there’d just be white kids who would come up to me and look at me, and then they would be like, ‘Oh my god, is that pee? That looks so disgusting,'” she told Newsline.
Senthilnathan attended North Star Academy, a charter school in Parker, from kindergarten through 8th grade and then Douglas County High School for two years. After that environment became “unbearable,” she left for the Colorado Early Colleges Parker program.
Senthilnathan’s mental health declined due to discrimination and bullying she faced in school, she said, and she began seeing a therapist for depression. Though she feels more at peace now, Senthilnathan doesn’t want to just forget about the trauma she experienced. She plans to stay engaged with Douglas County School District and might run for the school board.
“I want to make sure that no other Brown or Black child is sitting in the bathroom eating lunch,” Senthilnathan said. “I want to make sure that they are getting a seat at the table.”
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Editor’s note: This article was updated at 10:30 a.m., June 28, 2021, to correct where Julie Bateman works as an elementary school teacher.
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