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School board meetings turn tense with debates over critical race theory and masking

The discord is raising the stakes for school boards already facing pressure over decisions on pandemic schooling. And some predict it may only get worse.

A resident shouts at the Great Valley school board Monday night, upset that people were able to applaud when another resident spoke in favor of diversity and inclusion initiatives.
A resident shouts at the Great Valley school board Monday night, upset that people were able to applaud when another resident spoke in favor of diversity and inclusion initiatives.Read moreCourtesy Great Valley School District

First, the residents accused the Great Valley school board of endorsing a communist agenda and allowing racist ideology to be taught in schools. Then, someone urged the board to continue diversity and inclusion initiatives, to applause.

Board president David Barratt had warned against clapping, and banged his gavel to silence the crowd at the meeting Monday night. “You want me to end this now?” he asked.

A man near the front of the room rose from his chair and moved to leave. “I’m not going to listen to any of this s—,” he told the board angrily. “They can clap and we can’t?”

Tensions have been running high at school board meetings around the Philadelphia region this summer. Parents are challenging officials over critical race theory and demanding an end to COVID-19 restrictions, raising the stakes for school boards already facing pressure over decisions on pandemic schooling.

And with coronavirus cases ticking up as the fall nears, and school board meetings becoming the most approachable arenas for partisan debate in a year lacking any major elections, some predict the contention may only get worse.

» READ MORE: The pandemic and bitter partisanship polarized 2020. Now it’s seeping into school board races.

“It’s going to heat up for the next six to eight weeks,” said Art Levinowitz, president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and a member of the Upper Dublin school board.

School boards were thrust into the spotlight last year, forced to navigate health guidelines and the desires of community members as they oversaw education during the pandemic. Meetings drew impassioned comments from parents, some of whom had starkly different views on reopening.

With the new school year approaching — and a crop of parents angered by last year’s closures vying for seats on school boards in November — officials like Levinowitz see challenges.

“Whatever we say, there may not be trust,” Levinowitz said.

A major talking point in conservative media and staple in Republican campaign messaging, critical race theory has increasingly become a focus of public comment at area school board meetings. Many public school leaders say they aren’t teaching the concepta legal framework that dates to the 1970s and examines racism as embedded in institutions — but are working to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, efforts that have been underway for years.

Their critics — who have been organizing on social media — argue schools are foisting a political belief system on students, and sowing division by excessively focusing on race.

“It’s impossible to divorce the current backlash against equity-type work from national politics — 100% impossible,” said Kyle Boyer, a school board member in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, where residents spoke for close to two hours about the topic at a board meeting last month.

Among them: a man who told the board he would be filing right-to-know requests for proof of systemic racism; a woman who said the district was paying consultants to “teach racism” and scaring children; and a Chinese immigrant who likened critical race theory to China’s Cultural Revolution when it was “common to see students beat their own teachers to death.”

Boyer later told the crowd that “what we’ve seen tonight is why the Capitol was breached on Jan. 6.”

At the Great Valley meeting Monday night, a woman who addressed the board referred to critical race theory as “tactics and theology used by Hitler and the KKK,” encouraging parents “to fight it.”

In the Haverford Township School District, a mother’s public comment at a board meeting this month accusing the district of “indoctrinating” students ended in acrimony as a board member called audience members who had applauded the comments “followers.”

“You should step down! Step down and resign!” a man shouted in response. A woman in the back of the crowded room referred to the board member, Kristin Larsen, as “the communist from Virginia.”

Larry Feinberg, the Haverford school board president, viewed the pushback as “a reflection of the discord that we’re seeing in the country in general.”

“It just manifests itself because school board meetings are frontline democracy,” Feinberg said in an interview. He said he spent about half an hour after the July 8 meeting talking to parents outside, and while there were some “testy exchanges,” it was a “more civil, respectful conversation.” Later, someone posted a video clip from that conversation on Twitter, showing Feinberg eliciting a loud groan from parents after he implored the crowd: “Look at the group here, we’re a bunch of white folks talking about equity and racism.”

As he gaveled in the latest meeting Thursday night, Feinberg warned the crowd that if things got too testy, he would halt the meeting and people would be escorted out. That didn’t stop some from unloading.

“Listen to us. Look at us. ... We are not stupid,” one woman, an opponent of critical race theory, angrily told the board. From the opposite camp, another parent chastised board members for allowing “sideshows of charlatans and hucksters” and said: “This room, under your watch, has become a dangerous place.”

» READ MORE: A debate in the Philly suburbs on bringing more students back to classrooms is ‘as political as the presidential election’

In the Downingtown Area School District, masks and critical race theory were topics of dispute at a four-hour meeting last week. One woman said parents who supported continued masking had “been lied to” and voiced frustration that a television cameraman was only filming comments about critical race theory. “The media is not covering the truth,” she said. “They really should be ashamed of themselves.”

The cameraman left the room to boos.

Later, a mother got up and said her two teenagers had contracted COVID-19 and experienced long-term effects. “It’s very offensive to hear people stand up here and say there are no risks when you have children who have been impacted in this way, all right?” she said to a mix of applause and boos.

“Could we please stop?” board president Jane Bertone told the crowd. “You’re acting worse than children.”

A video clip of a Pennsbury School District resident berating the school board last month for removing public comments from meeting videos that it deemed abusive to Black students and community members was widely shared on social media and picked up by conservative media outlets.

“I’ve got news for you, school board president Benito Mussolini,” said the resident, Simon Campbell. “Your power does not supersede that of the U.S. Constitution.” A lawyer for the board then cut in to say personal insults would not be tolerated.

The charged debates are leaving some parents feeling caught in the crosshairs. At the Great Valley meeting Monday, a mother of two came to the microphone and started crying as she described her feelings while hearing the comments from her fellow residents.

“As I looked around the room today, the first thing I said to my husband was, ‘We’re the only Black people here,’” said the woman, whose family moved to Malvern from a community where she said her children didn’t feel welcome. “So to hear these comments tonight, it scares me.”