Parents criticize Carmel Clay Schools diversity work, calling it divisive and political
A dozen parents and grandparents criticized diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts at Carmel Clay Schools to the school board on Monday night.
Calling the efforts political and promoting a “woke set of ideology," they criticized saying DEI emphasized differences which led to intolerance and bulling for those who disagree. They called for it to be removed from schools and condemned critical race theory, a concept that examines systemic racism as a part of American life.
District leaders stressed that the district doesn’t teach critical race theory and said they support the DEI work in schools.
They countered comments, saying DEI was essential to creating a safe learning environment for all students and to help them be prepared for the future. Two speakers also shared support for the work during public comment.
Comments both in support and in opposition were met with applause and cheers from the dozens who attended the meeting and watched from the edges of the board room.
Terri Roberts-Leonard, hired by the district in January as its first DEI officer, gave a presentation to the board later in the meeting. However, by then, speakers and their supporters had left the meeting.
The Carmel Clay school board is the latest school board in Hamilton County to hear from the community about issues of equity and diversity. Similar public comment and outcry has been happening in neighboring districts as well.
Speakers debate the need for DEI
Twenty people signed up for public comment on Monday night, and per board policy, the comment session was limited to 30 minutes. However, board president Layla Spanenburg allowed for two more speakers after that limit. She urged the remaining six speakers to email the board. Those who spoke were the first to sign up.
The board received several emails in the days ahead of the meeting both in support and opposition of DEI, per the district.
The first speaker was Allon Friedman, a parent in the district, who also wrote a letter in the Current, titled “CCS welcomes destructive ideology.” His letter was met with backlash. Friedman said DEI treats people by category, not character and prevents the free flow of ideas.
Jennifer Reeves, a parent in the district, said she was appalled when she found out that the district wanted to diversify its staff.
“What does race and gender have to do with teaching our children to read and write?” she asked.
Reeves said that DEI was creating division and intolerance toward those who disagree and that the schools should focus on academics instead.
Other speakers echoed Friedman and Reeves, calling for DEI to be removed and criticizing social-emotional learning, saying topics they consider to be about politics and morals should be taught at home not school. Many were forceful and some even continued comments after their time was up and being told to stop. Several ended their comments with “not my child, not my school."
The speakers who shared support for DEI said the efforts were not rooted in hostility.
Parent Michael Cloud said it was a way to grow.
“We do have to acknowledge our shortcomings to be better and grow,” he said, adding that while that may be hard for some students, the status quo is already hard for others.
And Wandini Riggins, a parent in the district, said DEI helps to create empathy and context. She said growing up as a West African immigrant in Greencastle, she had experiences that were damaging because her peers didn’t have the context to not make jokes or comments.
“I’m super emotional listening to my neighbors today,” she said. “I want to be hopeful, and today I’m not sure.”
Diversity leader stresses her role
As she started her presentation to the board, Roberts-Leonard said it was unfortunate that those who came for public comment had left, but the good thing about the evening was that most of what people were upset about wasn’t true.
“Once we can get that out there, that rage will subside,” she said, adding she has no hidden agenda and doesn’t question people’s ability to parent.
She and Superintendent Michael Beresford stressed that the district doesn’t teach critical race theory and Roberts-Leonard doesn’t create curriculum. The curriculum is based on Indiana state standards, Beresford said.
Beresford said he got the sense that commenters felt that DEI was based on guilt and shame, but that’s not the case. He said the district wants students to feel included.
And Roberts-Leonard agreed. She also added that people can think DEI is exclusive to race, but that’s not the case. Diversity is very broad, she said.
“We have to make it clear what we do,” she said.
In an overview of the work she’s done so far, Roberts-Leonard highlighted multiple trainings and events. That included an “Excellence in Equity” series for staff on topics including allyship, intersectionality and microaggressions.
She’s also had events and listening sessions for the community and met with various groups and organizations both inside and outside the schools. She wants to reach even more community members by ramping up social media and creating a webpage on DEI for the district.
She said students had an opportunity to participate in an art and poetry contest for Black History Month and writing contest for Women’s History Month.
Going forward, Roberts-Leonard plans to review handbooks, create a program calendar for the coming year and do trainings for staff. She's also proposing a DEI committee structure for the district.
Familiar debates at Westfield and HSE
Monday’s meeting came on the heels of similar outcry in neighboring districts where some parents are questioning the role of DEI as well social-emotional learning and others are showing support.
In Westfield last week, the public comment period of the Westfield-Washington school board meeting was nearly three hours as parents, students, health experts and others debated whether books that address gender identity should continue to be in elementary schools and the role of schools to address gender identity.
At HSE, chief equity and inclusion officer Nataki Pettigrew gave an update to the district’s school board last week as well.
She told the HSE school board that a racial justice town hall was met with mixed reviews. The town hall was planned after HSE superintendent Allen Bourff wrote a pair of letters regarding how Black Lives Matter should be taught in the classroom, sparking outcry from those who said it showed a lack of support for the Black community.
Parents' concerns about the role of Black Lives Matter in the classroom as well as with social-emotional learning sparked Bourff to write his letter. And those who oppose and support that work continued to speak out, including during the hiring of HSE's next superintendent, Yvonne Stokes, last week.