'Don't divide our kids': Noblesville parents protest how schools talk about racism

MJ Slaby
Indianapolis Star

“Unite our kids, don’t divide our kids” and “content of character over color of skin” were just two of the signs that roughly two dozen protesters held Tuesday evening outside of a Noblesville school board work session.

Protesters, many of them parents, said they don't want the schools to teach critical race theory, a concept that examines systemic racism as a part of American life. They criticized it, saying that it puts a focus on race and leads to racism.

They also opposed discussions about white privilege and gender identity, and called critical race theory and social emotional learning "indoctrination." Noblesville Schools spokesperson Marnie Cooke said the district doesn't teach critical race theory.

Recently: Parents criticize Carmel Clay Schools diversity work

Noblesville is just the latest of the four suburban Hamilton County districts where parents have spoken out about diversity work and social emotional learning. 

The Noblesville school board meeting Tuesday didn't include public comment; however, the district is having a community meeting for Noblesville residents next Thursday to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion work in the schools. 

Protesters gather for board work session

On Tuesday, the Noblesville School Board met in a closed executive session followed by a public work session.

A protester holds a sign outside a building as the Noblesville school board meets inside on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. The protesters, who wouldn't provide their names, said they didn't want the schools to teach critical race theory, a concept that examines systemic racism as a part of American life. The district said it doesn't teach critical race theory.

During the executive session, protesters stood outside the Noblesville Schools Educational Services Center with their signs. Those approached by IndyStar, including the event organizer, declined to give their full names out of concern of being labeled as racists and because they had kids in the schools. They stressed that they supported equality and being kind to others.

They said they wanted schools to focus on core academic subjects, and some suggested special sessions outside of the school day for interested students to learn about topics like diversity and social emotional learning.

The protesters came inside for the work session, sitting in the audience with their signs in front of them. Agenda items included reports on emergency relief funds and the bidding process for construction. Because it was a work session, the board did not vote or accept public comment. The board hears public comment on agenda items during regular meetings. The next regular meeting is 7 p.m. May 18 at the educational services center.

Parents speak out across the area

While some protesters said they were opposed to lessons their children told them about, others said they were worried that critical race theory would become more common and pointed to nearby Hamilton Southeastern Schools. HSE leaders have also said the district doesn't teach critical race theory.

At HSE, some parents have been vocal about their opposition to diversity, equity and inclusion work as well as social-emotional learning. Some gathered to protest outside the the school board meeting last month where Yvonne Stokes was hired as the district's next superintendent. The outcry was also sparked by a message the district sent after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts in the murder of George Floyd. In the message, the district wrote about racial trauma, stressed an anti-racism education and pointed families to several resources, including one on talking to children about violence.

And at Westfield Washington Schools, 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. These discussions happened during the public comment session of school board meetings. The last meeting in April had nearly three hours of public comment.

In Carmel, a dozen parents criticized Carmel Clay’s diversity work to the school board at a meeting last week as supporters cheered them on. Two other speakers supported the diversity work. After the public comment period, Terri Roberts- Leonard, the district's diversity, equity and inclusion officer, shared an update on her work, but speakers and their supporters had left by then.

In two of the districts, HSE and Westfield, these conversations came up during superintendent searches. HSE ended its superintendent search by hiring Stokes, but Westfield’s search is ongoing.

Additionally, Carmel and Noblesville hired their first district-wide diversity leaders this school year. HSE also hired a diversity leader but had one before.

Noblesville to have community meeting

Since the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion is not on an upcoming school board agenda, Noblesville Schools created a community meeting, per an email sent to the school community on Monday.

Per the email, Noblesville Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer will speak about this work.

District spokesperson Marnie Cooke said the session will include talking about how the district defines diversity, equity and inclusion as well as social-emotional learning. She said both are areas where the district was doing work before this school year. Cooke added that there will also be breakout groups for people to share feedback and have conversations.

A protester holds a sign outside a building as the Noblesville school board meets inside on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. The protesters, who wouldn't provide their names, said they didn't want the schools to teach critical race theory, a concept that examines systemic racism as a part of American life. The district said it doesn't teach critical race theory.

The model for the event is similar to one the district had after its 2018 school shooting, she said, adding the school then was able to take feedback and respond.

Outside and before the work session, protesters said they were skeptical of the meeting and whether the district would actually listen to parents.

At the end of the session, Noblesville school board president Joe Forgey stood up and told the audience he knew why they were there and invited them to the upcoming meeting.

“This only works if we collaborate with you folks,” he said, urging them to bring their comments, ideas and suggestions to the meeting.

The community event is 7 p.m. May 13 at the Noblesville Schools Community Center, 1776 Field Drive in Noblesville. Masks and social distancing are required and space is limited. Registration is limited to Noblesville residents at: https://forms.gle/jkWAtVHWSLbh31fSA 

If more people are interested than space permits, Cooke said accommodations will be made, such as multiple sessions.

Call IndyStar education reporter MJ Slaby at 317-447-1586 or email her at mslaby@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mjslaby.