School board meeting draws large crowd for Critical Race Theory debate

Most show up to show support for Nichols and district

[ By Kendra Walker ]

Public comment dominated the five-hour Gunnison Watershed School District school board meeting Monday night, in which a large crowd of parents, students, teachers and community members showed up to discuss their support or opposition to the many contentious topics that have landed in district conversations over the last several months, including Critical Race Theory, mask mandates and district staffing shortages.

The topic of Critical Race Theory was perhaps the instigator for why approximately 170 people filled the Crested Butte Community School multi-purpose room, with another 275 or so on Zoom. Many of those in support of the district had gathered in a march from the Four-way Stop prior to the meeting outfitted in blue shirts declaring, “We Support Our Schools.” Those criticizing the district showed up to support a proposed resolution presented by Tomas Gomez banning Critical Race Theory from the school curriculum.

Parents had first brought up concerns that Critical Race Theory was being taught in the local schools in September, and the district’s stance has been that it does not teach Critical Race Theory in its curriculum, but rather focuses on educational equity. The school board and superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols followed up with those concerned parents in a circle discussion to further listen to and address those concerns, and the topic has been covered in two school board meetings since.

During Monday’s meeting, Nichols addressed the board and the room with a presentation on educational equity.

“I have dedicated my life to service and for me that’s through public education. I believe it’s the foundation of America. While people like to say that reading, writing and arithmetic are the only concerns schools should have, that educational excellence should be the narrow and even the exclusive focus of our schools and what we do, we all know that it’s more complicated than that,” she said.

“In America we educate every child no matter where they’re from or who they pray to, no matter what they look like on the outside or abilities or disabilities they hold on the inside of their bodies, no matter who they love or who their families vote for, we educate them all. And our mission is to be sure that every student is successful…To be sure that every child can do their very best when learning reading, writing and arithmetic, our teachers must be skilled in the very best teaching methods for their content areas…but that is not enough and it has never been enough. We work to create conditions where everyone knows they belong. We build relationships among students and between teachers and students,” she said. As a teacher for 15 years, Nichols noted, “I learned a whole lot about what makes kids tick, and that’s the part I haven’t stopped learning and it’s the most important part of teaching because if I can’t understand kids and who they are or where they’re coming from, I can’t teach them. Learning more about our students and each other is a critical part of public education. It’s the foundation.

“The word ‘equity’ along with the words ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ have become triggering for some but I need to be clear in explaining that these ideas are at the literal heart of public education in America,” she continued. “We have to understand every single child’s experience… To make schools where every child feels that they belong is not some liberal agenda, it is merely the imperative of public education in America to create educational equity for all…To achieve educational excellence we must create schools where every child belongs so they will engage and feel valued…These concepts of equity and excellence go hand in hand.”
After Nichols’ presentation, board treasurer Dave Taylor responded that he had listened to the equity labs training podcasts. “I found a lot of the podcast to be negative. My takeaway was that a lot of people feel that a lot of the equity labs material just don’t make them feel good about it,” he said. “I am encouraging positive content on these highly sensitive issues…prejudice has to be framed in a positive light by showing overall kindness to each other regardless of our physical character. Some people feel that treating others with respect and dignity is the same as not being racist, not being judgmental and for may of us we feel we’re leading a good life that we don’t need to all look as deep as you.”

Gomez, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the school district regarding its mask mandate, read his proposed resolution to ban Critical Race Theory from being taught. “Recognizing the equality and rights of all persons and prohibiting group identity-based discrimination and pedagogy that are contrary to that intent.”

Gomez stated that the draft proposal (view it at crestedbuttenews.com/draft_crt_policy/) was non-partisan, and that examples of curriculum that violates the proposed policy’s principles includes CRT and Diversity, Inclusion Equity Training. “If adopted, this policy will help keep our children’s education free from racist, divisive and destructive ideologies.”

Support for Nichols and the district
Many parents spoke out against the resolution, including Geoff Blaisdell. “The resolution is chopped up copy and paste taken from writings of partisan organizations… I do not agree with the claim that the resolution is non-partisan…nor do I agree with straining our community and school with national political theatrics.”

“I feel like our school and what this community stands for is quite frankly under attack. It’s unfortunate our school districts are the platform for this,” said Grace Adam Elliot. “The children in this school are not indoctrinated, they’re educated and they’re implored to challenge ideas presented to them and they engage in debate. My child comes home and shares things that I didn’t know and challenges me to think about my own biases as well, and I’m grateful for that.”

“Critical Race Theory is a belief system, it’s not curriculum,” said former school administrator Greg Kruthopp.

“I support diversity, equity and inclusion in our education system,” said Nicole Swaggerty. “We shouldn’t be doing this with kid gloves on. We should be able to figure out how to teach the Holocaust and slavery without giving warm fuzzies out so that we can feel better about it. We need to be able to talk about these real issues and address them and look at them for ourselves so we can learn from them.”

Several current GWSD students spoke, including 12th grader Nola Hadley. She shared that the discussion of a CRT ban had come up in her AP History class and that she and her classmates appreciated the opportunity to learn. “Giving students the full picture including the good stuff and the bad stuff is crucial to every good education. It’s crucial to independent thinking. When we gloss over differences we lose sight of diverse perspectives. Some of the best discussions I have had in class have been ones where students brought their personal experiences into the discussion,” she said. “It’s important to keep students’ voices in mind. We are not objecting to this.”

Samantha Lakoski, another CBCS student, said that more student voices needed to be represented. “These classrooms have provided me a space to feel safe, supported and included, as well as receiving a well-rounded and comprehensive education. An education system with diversity and equity is essential in our modern society. Education without considering diversity and equity will rob the students at CBCS of developing a complete understanding of the world.”

Several CBCS alumni, some who now have kids in school here, voiced their support for the district, and opposition to the resolution put forth by Gomez.

“Thank you Gunnison Watershed School District for my education,” said Malia Jones. “Children deserve an honest education about race and racism of this country. If we want our future to be different, we have to deal with the past openly and honestly.”
“Mr. Gomez presented a resolution to a problem that does not exist,” said Laura Villanueva. “Tonight you have heard from many current and past students and I’d like to bring to your attention that every single student that talked tonight was against this resolution. Please listen to your students and not a bully who just moved to town who’s threatening lawsuits, who’s threatening to bankrupt the school district…he’s doing all of this to push a political agenda. I was so proud to hear my classmates’ speeches and that’s because we were brought up in this curriculum at Gunnison Watershed School district. So please do not change this because of a bully who is threatening this community.”

Many parents were very moved and grateful for Nichols’ words on educational equity. “After listening to you speak there is nothing more that I would like than to come work for you and teach in this valley,” said Alex Stefan.

“I have profound respect and gratitude for what you bring to the table,” said Derrick Harwell, asking the room for a standing round of applause for Nichols’ courage and what she brings to the community.

“I do hope that we can come together in centering ourselves in what the children need,” said Chloe Bowman. “Twenty percent of the kids in this valley, that are not white, that are not the main narrative, that are not represented, need us to put our efforts together. It’s quite simple. I support Leslie and am so happy to be in a room with someone so passionate about children, so thank you.”

“Racial differences are nothing to fear,” said Kelly Jo Clark. “Just as learning differences are nothing to fear and gender differences are nothing to fear…Empathy is nothing to be feared. Empathy is a critical human trait and is what will help get us through hard times and division. When you feel the hurt of others, don’t let it scare you, let it propel you into making the world a better place.”
“My children are half Indian in a school of mostly white students,” said Danica Ramgoolam. “Our experience with the teachers and culture at CBCS so far has been positive. This school has done so much to create a sense of belonging and inclusion for them.”
Kimberly Yedellon addressed those who wondered if just being nice could be enough, instead of being made to feel bad about their whiteness. “I appreciate that question and I appreciate that perspective and I appreciate niceness,” she said. “But I have to say that niceness has not been enough for my daughter to have teachers who have the same skin color as her, niceness has not been enough that she hasn’t been called the n word by her classmates. Niceness has not saved her from deciding to cut off her giant glorious Afro because it would probably maybe hopefully stop kids from putting their hands on it. It hasn’t been enough. It’s appreciated and I care and I understand where that’s coming from, I truly do and there is gratitude for that, but it’s not enough.”

Support for the CRT ban
Many parents still spoke of their concerns for the district’s current curriculum.

Danielle Neuschwanger noted that she spent 10 years in criminal justice and is a candidate for Colorado Governor. “I can personally speak to the fact the CRT, and let’s call it that, it’s not equity and inclusion training, it’s CRT, and for the purpose of this let’s go ahead and call it ‘Criminal Racist Trash,’ does not help your kids,” she said. “When you constantly tell your kids they’re not good enough based on how they look, based on their disabilities they will start to believe that psychological mantra and they will not succeed…We’re not teaching the right things. If you want to truly succeed in life, get back to a 1776 curriculum where the patriotism mattered and your kid’s skin color did not. We’ve gone away from teaching our kids to successfully manage conflict…If we gave our kids the opportunities and education tools to handle conflict, they’d be much more successful in life.”

“I’ve done a lot of research on Critical Race Theory and equity, inclusion diversity training. I went through that discomfort,” said Michelle Duft, recalling feeling self-conscious when she found herself in a situation being the minority. “I realized CRT has changed me, but it was in a bad way, it wasn’t in a good way.”

“My wife and I have been raising and taking care of children of all different ethnic groups, from Africa and Asia, from New York City and New Jersey, from all over world,” said Tom Barber. “Our goal is to help these children express all their creativity and to grow and be successful in life. It’s not for the teachers to teach what they want, we as parents are involved and it’s part of being a team. None of us agree on everything but I hope we can keep working together and not put each other down because we disagree.”
“A lot of the push for Critical Race Theory is from leftist organizations and Marxist organizations like Black Lives Matter,” said Jan Barber, saying she was disturbed by the comments that Gomez’ proposal was not non-partisan. “It needs to be a balance, it doesn’t need to be politicized either way. I don’t want my black children that we’re raising right now being told they’re victims. And I don’t’ want my white children that we’re raising right now being told they’re bullies, and some of that is in some of this curriculum.”

Newly elected board president Tyler Martineau thanked the public for their comments and noted that the resolution would be reviewed and responded to by the school district in a timely manner. While the meeting ran until almost 11 p.m., many parents and community members stuck around to speak in support of the district’s mask mandate, speak against the lawsuit against the district, and generally express their support for Nichols, the school board, the administration and teachers of the Gunnison Valley.

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