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“We cannot allow our time to be consumed by long, repetitive, redundant comments,” Johnson-Myers said. “Clapping is timeconsuming, disruptive and divisive. Clapping can become like a competition regarding who claps the loudest, which ultimately divides people.”

Public comment

Jim Sowder, of River Falls, asked the board to table the controversial topics policy and the critical race theory statement, to allow the community more time for input.

“We want to be sensitive to students’ freedom and the ability to talk in the classroom,” Sowder said. “We also want to give guidance to how teachers should plan their lessons to avoid obvious controversial topics.”

Parent Anna White provided input on the Redefining Ready! initiative at the high school and how that needs to be implemented for the younger grade levels. The initiative “introduces new research- based metrics to more appropriately assess that students are college ready, career ready and life ready.”

Parent Angie Krause asked the board to revise the district’s mask matrix; she said she’s surprised it takes into consideration confirmed and probable cases among district residents as well as the student population. She would like masking to be optional; at this time, it’s mandatory for staff and students 4K-12.

Parent Cassie Howard also spoke in favor of making masks optional and reworking the mask matrix. She talked about N95 masks and their seals versus cloth masks, which she deemed ineffective.

Controversial topics

The board voted unanimously to pass the board policy (upon second reading) concerning controversial topics. The policy introduction states: “The purpose of this policy is to provide guidance to educators engaged in the study of controversial topics, promote civil discourse and a pathway for families to judge if they want their child to participate in the study of certain topics.”

The district’s goal, as stated in the policy, is to create an educational environment to support teachers and students when they enter into discussions of controversial topics in a manner that helps them evaluate multiple perspectives and to encourage civil and constructive critical thinking skills.

“It is vital to provides students with the skills needed to participate in community and political life, cope with social change, appreciate other cultures and gain an understanding of individual responsibility and ethics,” the policy states.

On both a planned and unplanned basis, a topic (under the policy) can be considered controversial when it:

•Can be reasonably expected to make individuals in a class or other group feel uncomfortable, distressed or threatened.

•Tends to elicit strong emotional reactions.

•Challenges a person’s assumptions or personal beliefs.

•Creates or reveals real or perceived division based on differing beliefs, values, life experience or points of view.

•Presents a problem over which there is significant and often even emotional disagreement regarding the appropriate solution.

•Causes some parents to question the school’s role in addressing the topic with their child and the potential for eliciting such a reaction is reasonably foreseeable.

•Provides an opportunity for various cultures, beliefs, traditions and historical matters to be discussed.

The policy’s guidelines are designed to protect teachers and students from unfair or inconsiderate criticism during the study of controversial topics.

“Discussion of controversial issues is acceptable when it clearly serves an educational purpose, is age appropriate, consistent with curricular objectives, arises during the educational process, and is consistent with the district’s mission statement and non-discrimination policy. Such discussion is not intended to advance the interest of any group, political or otherwise,” the policy states.

Although most times, educators will have no need to reveal their personal opinions, positions or beliefs, if they disclose that information, they cannot attempt to persuade students to adopt their opinions. Whenever possible, teachers will provide parents advance notice on controversial topics coverage in class so that parents may determine if their student should participate.

“But we don’t always have the ability to predict what’s going to happen in a classroom,” Board Clerk Alan Tuchtenhagen said. “It’s really kind of sad that we have to codify this, but it’s important and we have to do it right now.

“Our teachers need this guideline. In this day and age, I’m beginning to think that there’s not anything that you can’t, that we can’t talk about that can’t be made controversial. Everything, everybody, it seems to be stirred up these days.”

Tuchtenhagen said he doesn’t want teachers to feel intimidated or like they can’t teach. Board member Lindsey Curtis echoed his sentiments, citing the district’s “highly competent, professional teachers.”

“I think one of the primary objectives for our school district is to help students develop critical thinking skills, to teach them how to think, not what to think,” Curtis said. “The sense I’m getting from parents is that they really want to ensure that there is a partnership between them and our school district and what’s being taught in the classrooms … Essentially, it just boils down to they just want to know what’s being taught, that’s all.”

The district wants the public to realize it serves a broad spectrum of families, and that it will continue to be transparent about its policies, Johnson-Myers closed.

Critical Race Theory

The school board voted 7-0 to issue a statement articulating its position on Critical Race Theory (CRT) after months of study, discussion, emails and deliberation.

“Through this statement, the board desires to address questions from the community, avoid confusion about what CRT is and isn’t, and clarify the district’s stance on CRT,” said Johnson-Myers.

The goal in issuing the statement is for transparency and to prevent divisiveness over CRT from becoming a distraction, she added.

“This district has a lot to do and we don’t need distractions that pull us away from the core mission of educating our students,” Johnson-Myers said.

Tuchtenhagen said the board needs to issue a statement, thanks to the amount of misinformation being spread about CRT.

“Many people can’t really define what it is,” he said. “We have good work going on around equity and inclusion but that’s not CRT. I know a lot of colleagues who are in higher education who deal with CRT a lot and have quite a bit in their career, and they’re puzzled as to why people think CRT is a curriculum, because it’s not.”

Board member Bob Casey said he likes the statement because it removes all ambiguity.

Board Treasurer Todd Schultz said no one has come into his workplace to discuss COVID mitigations, but they have come in to talk about CRT. He himself has faith in the district’s character education and equity, diversity and inclusion work.

Curtis said she appreciates the opportunity people “who sounded the alarm bells” gave the board because it allows the district to clearly define its stance. Board Vice President Amy Halvorson said CRT “came out of left field” and she didn’t even know what it was, frankly, before they hashed it out at a board retreat.

Board member Cindy Holbrook said the statement adheres to the board’s values.

“And it’s not getting wrapped into a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of a graduate level academic concept that really, at the end of the day, can’t be taught at the elementary or secondary levels.”

CRT has sparked debate both locally and nationally, bringing about confusion, misinformation and polarization in communities across the country.

According to the statement, “CRT is a sophisticated hypothesis that attempts to describe how race and racism are present in social structures, including the legal system, and have shaped legislative priorities and public policy in the United States.”

Theorists first proposed that an interrelated system of laws, policies and institutions contributed to persistent racial disparities. This theory, known as CRT, came about in the mid-1970s.

“These theorists focused on social structures, not the behavior or values of individual people. For example, critical race theorists studied redlining, a practice of determining financial risk in specific neighborhoods predominately on the basis of race,” the statement points out. “Some recent definitions of CRT conflate and/or comingle CRT with our local School District of River Falls work related to equity, inclusivity, and diversity. The result of this error is a misunderstanding of both CRT as well as the district’s goal to ensure all students are treated justly and according to their individual needs.”

While CRT includes a wide range of academic work, it is NOT:

•A curriculum, course of study, set of learning activities, or instructional outcomes taught by the district.

•A topic or unit of study included in core or elective courses in the district.

•A professional development focus or training requirement for educators in the district.

Sowder, who commented earlier, said when he first read the statement, he liked it. But something was eating at him and he became irritated with it, especially the part that mentioned an “error” and “misunderstanding.” He asked the board to hold several community nights and open forums on the topic.

“After more input, you still think there’s an error, great,” he said. “If you might come to the conclusion that some of the underpinning philosophies of CRT is very clearly embedded in equity, inclusion and diversity, and the reason I say that is it’s very similar to DEI at my place of employment … if you look at all these initiatives, the very words diversity, inclusion and equity, they already create a situation where there’s this oppressed/oppressor systemic feeling that I don’t believe exists or needs to be talked about at a minimum.”

He accused the board of just rushing to get CRT concerns off its plate.

His wife, Pam, said residents don’t feel the district is transparent, and cited changes on the EID Committee website.

“There are a bunch of links on there that did lead people to believe that there were books, videos by Flocabulary and a lot of other things that are social justice related that talk about intersectionality, that are terms that are part of CRT,” she said. “There are people fearful.”

Johnson-Myers suggested the Sowders speak with the superintendent or director of curriculum about their fears, while Schultz said the board is not shutting the door on the topic and will continue self-reflection.

Benson also spoke up, emphasizing the amount of time and deliberation undertaken in the statement.

“It’s a brave step to put something on paper in an effort to be transparent,” Benson said. “Let there be no confusion that it was simply visited one night at a board retreat and we suddenly decided to slap something on a piece of paper.”

Tuchtenhagen said he knew some people wouldn’t be happy with the statement, liberal or conservative, but he likes it.

Benson commented on what he thinks the real concern is, that he’s heard.

“I want to know if you’re teaching my kids and my grandkids in your school system whether or not that the color of their skin makes them an oppressor,” he said. “The answer to that is no. This district is not indoctrinating children that because of whatever their life experience or color of their skin, or the amount of income that their family has, that that automatically makes them an oppressor.”

November 3, 2021