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East Lyme school board member calls out public comment as 'antisemitic and racist'

East Lyme — After a letter characterized the school district's diversity consulting firm as "professional parasites," Board of Education member John Kleinhans called the term antisemitic and racist.

The letter from resident Elizabeth Mondello criticized the methods being used by the Providence, R.I.-based Equity Institute to conduct an audit of the school's overall mindset on issues of diversity. The firm has been collecting surveys, holding focus groups and conducting one-on-one interviews since April.

"I strongly object to the presence of these commercial groups in our schools, in my opinion they are just professional parasites," Mondello wrote.

The letter was read into the public record at Monday's school board meeting by a school board member.

Mondello in the letter objected to survey questions she said were targeted to elicit "pro equity" and "pro-Institute" responses. She went on to characterize the audit as a way for the consultants to make money and to sell more seminars and training opportunities.

Kleinhans said during a discussion on the audit that he was "deeply offended" by what he called the "very antisemitic and racist" implications of the term parasite. "If somebody's saying that in public comment, I don't even know what people are saying behind the scenes," he said.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "parasite" was a common term in German government-sponsored propaganda used to denounce Jewish people.

Kleinhans asked Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton to convey the board's full support to the Equity Institute.

Attempts to reach Mondello by phone Tuesday were not successful.

Kleinhans, a Republican in his sixth year on the school board, said by phone Tuesday that the pejorative use of the term parasite goes back hundreds of years.

"That's not what our town is," he said. "That type of language should never be used to describe a company or organization the Board of Education is working with. I was profoundly embarrassed and saddened that that type of language has touched our school system."

Kleinhans is not Jewish but said he has worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"For the folks and members of our community who are Jewish, I just wanted to be that voice to say how disgusted I was," he said.

Another letter was submitted by resident Fredricka Gunther, who said the Equity Institute "has an agenda" in support of what she called critical race theory.

Critical race theory seeks to highlight how historical inequities and racism continue to shape public policy and social conditions today, according to the Associated Press. The news outlet has reported that conservatives across the country have decried critical race theory as an attempt to pit various racial groups against each other and teach that certain groups are responsible for past injustices, while others say the theory is simply a way to look at how race and racism have undoubtedly shaped the nation.

Gunther said she is concerned the decision to bring in Equity Institute to conduct the audit was made when there were no in-person school board meetings "during a time of much chaos" amid the pandemic. The school board has been inviting the public to participate through the Zoom video conferencing platform.

"Many are really not aware of what Critical Race Theory means and how it will impact the children," she wrote.

Equity Institute co-founder and CEO Karla Vigil provided a statement to The Day in response to a request for comment.

The group said school districts across the country — including East Lyme — are beginning to "break down barriers" and bring to the center the voices of people most impacted by inequities.

"We hold fast to our vision for an education system that recognizes identity and human connection as central to the process of teaching and learning where all young people build the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the world," the statement said.

Equity Institute has worked with several schools and districts to better understand the perceptions and beliefs around educational equity in each community, according to Vigil.

The equity audit is one element of the East Lyme school board's strategic plan for "countering racism" through diversity, equity and inclusion. The document, approved by the school board in April, calls for an exploration into such issues as the extent to which current policies might perpetuate racism and how the schools do at affirming students of different racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds.

An anonymous parent survey from the Equity Institute sent out via email by the school district on May 5 included numerous questions on a broad range of diversity-related topics.

Some questions delved into how welcoming the school community is to various populations, including non-native English speakers; Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC; nonbinary and LGBTQIA2S, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual or two spirit, an alternative gender status in Indigenous cultures. Other questions asked how important it is to expose students to ideas from people of different genders, ethnicities, religions and races. Still others asked how safe and valued the respondents feel when it comes to expressing their views within the school community.

The school board's strategic plan specifies the data will be used to help action teams — made up of school staff members, parents and community members — to assess "the effectiveness of current practices in countering racism, advancing diversity, promoting equity and fostering inclusion."

The results will be analyzed and a report will be produced and shared with the community. Newton told school board members a draft of the report should be ready in June or July.

e.regan@theday.com

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