Kansas City area school board removes social justice lessons

In this Oct. 9, 1999, file photo, a cross made of stones rests below the fence in Laramie, Wyoming, where a year earlier, University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was tied and pistol whipped into a coma. He later died. “The Laramie Project,” a play and film about the incident, was part of a curriculum removed from Lansing classrooms.

In this Oct. 9, 1999, file photo, a cross made of stones rests below the fence in Laramie, Wyoming, where a year earlier, University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was tied and pistol whipped into a coma. He later died. “The Laramie Project,” a play and film about the incident, was part of a curriculum removed from Lansing classrooms.

AP Photo

Going against a district recommendation, the Lansing school board removed high school English curriculum after a parent complained that her daughter’s course had been “hijacked by a social-political agenda” and was “representative of critical race theory.”

The school board in Leavenworth County last week voted 4-3 to remove certain materials included in Senior Composition and Senior Literature courses, despite the objections of several other parents and students. That decision went against a district committee’s recommendation stating that the content as used in class is “appropriate for the age of students and learning objectives.”

Parent Kirsten Workman successfully challenged materials in a social justice unit, where students explored different topics and wrote expository essays. As a result, the classes will no longer include the video “Oscar Wilde Biography: His ‘Wild’ Life,” the films “The Laramie Project” and “13th,” and the essays “We Should All be Feminists” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and “Willing to Be Disturbed” by Margaret J. Wheatley.

“My opinion is that my daughter’s writing course has been hijacked by a social-political agenda where she is force-fed ideas that are completely homogeneous and ignore other perspectives,” Workman wrote in her objection.

Several other parents and students urged the school board to dismiss the complaint, arguing that they should not bend to the will of “extreme radical parents.”

“There are extreme forces trying to denigrate quality public education in Lansing. These individuals couch this effort with words meant to scare, like ‘Marxism,’ ‘indoctrination’ and ‘propaganda,’” parent Nicole Yedlinsky told the school board.

“There are some individuals who mistakenly believe they can raise children in a vacuum. They believe high school students are not capable of complex thought. These parents should be having open conversations with their children regarding their own viewpoints, not disrupting the well-balanced, moderate education my children currently receive.”

The Lansing school board removed social justice curriculum in a high school English class, including the showing of the documentary “13th,” which features professor and activist Angela Davis. Netflix

Curriculum challenge

Workman called the five-week unit “indoctrination,” arguing that it taught students critical race theory, or CRT, an academic concept that explores the role of American institutions in perpetuating racial inequality.

CRT is not taught in K-12 schools, but has become a target of conservative parents and politicians and a catchall term for schools’ teachings on race, diversity and equity.

“My daughter is seventeen years old, and has not fully formed her own ideas yet. She is not a college student. This reading, presented in this context, does not serve as encouragement for a young mind to do the intellectual work required to support her own ideas, but rather to try on others’ ideas to see how they feel and whether that brings harmony to society,” Workman wrote in her objection.

Students told the school board that the course taught them to identify biases and consider a variety of perspectives to make informed opinions. One student said at last week’s meeting that, “listening to another person’s perspective is not indoctrinating.”

The debate in Lansing comes amid a nationwide push by some conservative parents and politicians to ban from schools certain books that deal with gender and sexual identity, as well as diversity and equity initiatives and curriculum on race.

Workman argued that the documentary “13th” was a direct example of CRT. The title refers to the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and, according to Netflix, analyzes “the criminalization of African Americans and the U.S. prison boom.” The committee that reviewed the curriculum — made up of subject area experts, library specialists, parents and a student — reported that only clips of the documentary were shown to classes, and that the teacher stopped the film multiple times to point out biases.

The curriculum is designed to hone expository writing skills, having students explain facts.

“For a student to be able to master this type of writing, readers should be given a variety of alternating views and controversial material to ascertain biases and inaccuracies on their own. This is how they improve as critical thinkers, writers, and learners,” a committee member wrote.

The essay “Willing to Be Disturbed” encourages readers to be willing to have their beliefs challenged. “We Should All be Feminists” is a personal essay that explores how women are marginalized around the world and offers a unique definition of feminism, according to the author’s website.

“The Laramie Project” is a play and HBO film about the reaction to the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.

Workman said she objects “to my child’s exposure to literary themes which are heavily centered on sexuality, religion, morality, brutal murder and death,” adding that she does not want the course “to give my child the impression that hate crimes are even a remotely prevalent social issue in the U.S.”

The committee that reviewed the curriculum argued that the video shown in class is rated TV-14, “is factual, tells both sides of the story, and did happen.”

Student Brooke Worrall, who served on the committee, argued that the curriculum is valuable and helped teach students critical thinking skills.

“Not only did we learn how to analyze facts during these lessons but also how to spot bias and/or propaganda,” Worrall said. “The information was presented to us by the teachers very well. The teachers presented to us this information in a neutral manner without suggesting an opinion in any way. Typically, after these lessons the students were given the chance to discuss with classmates and do our own research to form our own opinions.”

Workman first met with Principal Alan Penrose in September, saying that her daughter was instructed in class to analyze literature using a “Marxist lens” and other social-political theories, according to district documents. She continued discussing her concerns about classwork with the principal, who in October allowed her daughter to work from the library and complete alternate assignments.

She then submitted a challenge to the curriculum. The principal gave her daughter several options, according to the committee report, including returning to class, completing a class online or enrolling in a new literature class for college credit. Workman reportedly rejected those ideas and argued for her daughter to stay in class and for the content to change.

Last month, the school board directed the superintendent to form a committee to review the curriculum.

‘Disrupting the classroom’

Students pleaded with the school board to allow teachers to continue offering safe spaces in class to discuss difficult topics.

“Disrupting the classroom like this is hurting the teachers’ right to teach and the students’ right to learn,” student Alexis Perry told the school board. “…There is a teacher shortage in America, and having attacks like this on our teachers and their ability to teach is driving that number up.”

Perry said the curriculum challenge already is “affecting my fellow classmates in other classes, with the fear that their teaching environment is going to be disrupted. … I used to want to be a teacher. And things like this, where I’m seeing teachers losing their ability and their right to teach and my right as a student to learn, doesn’t make me want to do that.”

This past spring, the Lansing school board voted 4-3 to approve a parents bill of rights, modeled after Republican-supported legislation that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed, calling the measure a “teacher demoralization act.” The Kansas House failed to override the veto, but Republicans made it a hallmark of campaigns this fall. The parents bill of rights outlines ways parents can oversee their child’s education, including reviewing and objecting to books and curriculum.

Across the country, Republican lawmakers have pushed for such “curriculum transparency” measures, arguing that schools needed to increase transparency and parent involvement.

Many public school advocates and teachers fought back against the proposed parents bill of rights in Kansas, arguing that parents were already afforded the rights spelled out in the legislation. Some teachers told The Star that they already provide parents with learning materials and are happy to address complaints as they arise. They worried that such legislation would have a chilling effect on open and flexible classroom instruction.

This story was originally published December 21, 2022 5:30 AM.

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Sarah Ritter covers K-12 education for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.

Francis McGee

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