School board taking steps to address Critical Race Theory

Nondiscrimination policy already in place, listening discussions in the works

[ By Kendra Walker ]

Leadership in the Gunnison Watershed School District continues to review and discuss the concerns that have been brought up over the last month regarding Critical Race Theory. Members of the school board want to make it clear that they are listening, will continue to listen and learn, and plan to provide more opportunities for the community to share their thoughts around Critical Race Theory (CRT).

Concerns about CRT were first brought up by parents and members of the community during the September 13 school board meeting. Following that meeting, the district convened a circle discussion with school board members and district staff, along with the seven community members who had expressed concerns.

“The goal of that meeting was to meet each other and clarify what we mean when we use the term and generate a list of questions for the district to respond,” said superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols. The list of questions that were generated at the circle included queries around how equity labs and JEDI training are being applied at schools, the process for developing book collections in the library, how to find out more about curriculum and staff professional development opportunities, and the process for filing grievances about curriculums and instruction or for bringing issues to the attention of leaders at the school district.

During the October 18 school board meeting, more parents spoke on their concerns about CRT, and on October 26 the school board held a work session to further discuss the matter.

“I think we as a board and school district need to foster discussion,” said board member Dave Taylor. “We have so much divisiveness that we need to foster an attitude that we’re listening to everybody.”

“This is an opportunity to make clear statements as a school district about our belief in the importance of creating schools and classrooms and experiences where every student and every adult in the district feels like they belong,” said Nichols. “The emphasis that emerged so strongly from the pandemic about the importance of social/emotional learning is directly tied to these issues that are coming up as concerns and fears from parents about what we’re doing with our instruction that might fodder their definition of Critical Race Theory. One of my developing takeaways from the comments we’ve heard and the circle discussion we’ve had is that people are afraid that we are dividing students or making students feel bad about being white… I acknowledge those fears as real…I want to reassure people that our efforts in creating the culture and climate of our schools is about being sure that every child feels when they walk into our schools and classrooms that they belong here, and we see them for who they are and we work hard to see their experiences from their families and their families’ backgrounds…and all of that is accepted and not just accepted but embraced.”

The board discussed the broadness of CRT, and how it’s difficult to pinpoint a definition and therefore, policy around the subject.

“In our group of 14 (from the circle discussion) I never saw that we all came to the same conclusion as to what is the definition of Critical Race Theory,” said board president Courtney Fullmer. “So, before we can address any sort of policy that explains how we are going to address Critical Race Theory we have to have some agreed upon definition, because the definition from CASB (Colorado Association of School Boards) was much, much different than the definition of what some of the parents were offering. It was like apples and oranges almost.”

“I don’t think that’s doable and I think we already have solid policy in the books that can be used to address it,” said Taylor, referencing the district’s policy of nondiscrimination in relation to race, sex, religion, national background, age, marital status and handicaps. “It will be impossible for us as a school board in Gunnison, Colorado to define Critical Race Theory and I don’t think we should even try.”

Taylor read from the district’s nondiscrimination policy, “To promote the rights and respect of all individuals…To encourage positive experiences in terms of human values for children and adults who have different personal and family characteristics or come from various socioeconomic and racial groups…To consider carefully in all decisions made which affect the schools the potential benefits or adverse consequences that those decision might have on the human relations aspects of all segments of society.”

Taylor continued, “I believe we need to be able to point somebody who has a beef tomorrow to a policy that we believe covers that and if we look to expand and through listening to make changes to this, fine. But I don’t think we can say to somebody, gee we don’t have anything that covers that.”

“I agree with that, that we do have the beginning of a way to be able to deal with the problem,” said board member LeeAnn Mick.

“I think we need more specifics, more discussion, more listening to the community,” said board member Tyler Martineau. “We need to talk with people about their very specific concerns. We also need to hear from folks who find parts of equity discussions to be something we need to be doing. I feel like we have work to do here.”

“I agree with you, Dave, I think with our statement of nondiscrimination, which comes from federal and state law, we can stand firm in saying we’re here for every child and every adult no matter who you are, or what religion you practice or the color of your skin or how you perceive yourself in any other number of ways, we don’t discriminate based on any of those features and we want to stand and embrace the richness of who you are in your experience moving through the world,” said Nichols.

The board agreed there is still much to understand from many perspectives on the topic of CRT, but moving forward Nichols plans to email responses to the questions from those who participated in the circle discussion, as well as post answers on the district website along with the district’s current discrimination policy. Additionally, the school board intends to schedule a series of group listening and discussion sessions but also encourages folks to reach out to the school board. The board also expressed a desire to hear more from teachers and allow their voice to be heard as well.

“It’s our intention for listen further and we are available and have a willingness to listen one-on-one,” said Fullmer. “If you want to specifically talk to a school board member, reach out. I think that this topic deserves face-to-face communication because of the emotional component. I would prefer face-to-face with parents who want to talk about it.”

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