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Critical race theory creeps into local school board races

Critical race theory, debated this year at area school board meetings, also played a role in some local elections, according to candidates.

Stonington Board of Education member Kevin Agnello said he had to take critical race theory seriously as an issue because so many would-be voters inquired about it.

"I knocked on probably 800-1,000 doors, I met with probably 30 to 40 families outside of door knocking, and I responded to probably 50-60 questions via my Facebook campaign page, and out of all of those interactions, critical race theory was a question 25-30% of the time," said the 30-year-old Agnello. "Some of the most common questions I got were somehow related to critical race theory."

In July, Agnello put out a statement on critical race theory.

"The question that parents and interested community members should be asking teachers, administrators, and the BOE is not, 'Is CRT taught here?'" Agnello wrote in the statement. "The teaching of CRT would most likely occur in law schools and not in K-12 classroom. Instead, the question should be, 'Is the CRT lens used to teach content here? If so, how, by whom, and why?'"

Agnello, who is unaffiliated but was endorsed by Republicans, said he didn't think the discourse around the theory helped Republicans in Stonington.

"You can see by the results, the three Dems ran away with the Board of Education results," he said. "Data would suggest that no, it didn't help Republicans, and this is an extremely Democratic town. Because of that and because it's such a politicized issue, most of the questions I got about it leaned how you would expect given the political demographics of our town."

In August, Stonington's school system issued a statement saying claims that schools are teaching critical race theory are false. Pointing out that critical race theory is a college-level theory course, the statement said the school system posts its Board of Education-approved, standards-based curriculums on its website, www.stoningtonschools.org, where they have been available to the public for more than four years. Several teachers addressed the school board saying that they do not teach CRT but do teach historical facts.    

Critical race theory became a much-debated topic after an interview on popular cable television host and conservative commentator Tucker Carlson's Fox News show in 2020, followed by an executive order issued by former President Donald Trump that forbade federal agencies from using training suggesting the U.S. was fundamentally racist. It became a wedge issue in the ongoing culture war, and Republicans in state legislatures throughout the country sought to pass laws limiting the teaching of the theory.

Many local board members or board members-elect declined, or were nervous, to speak on the subject, but several noted they repeatedly heard about critical race theory from constituents. Almost all of the board members who spoke with The Day said a significant number of voters brought up critical race theory, usually as a way to say it needs to be removed from being taught in schools.

Critical race theory is rooted in legal scholarship and academia. Its origins date to the 1970s and '80s, and the late Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell. One of the fundamental parts of the theory is that race is a social construct, and racism persists because it goes unaddressed. Educators and others dispute the claim that critical race theory is taught to make white people feel guilty about America's oppressive past. Like other academic theories, it's a lens through which to examine legal, historical, sociological and other matters. It's an understanding that racism informs how the country's legal system was built. Critical race theory rejects the idea of colorblindness with the recognition that racism needs to be confronted to be eradicated.

Groton Democratic Board of Education member-elect Matthew Shulman doesn't look at critical race theory as a partisan issue — he takes it at face value as something some parents were worried about. When he was first asked about the theory, he checked with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and found it is not in the state's curriculum. He said Connecticut does not teach K-12 kids ideologies.

"With any issue that riles up the public ... there's no escaping the fact that you need to listen to what people have to say, find out what the facts are as best you can, then share those facts with the person without labels and without the sort of stuff that further divides our country," Shulman said.

Local school boards heard about the issue in meetings in the months leading up to the election. Take Connie Szymonik of Mystic, who said she was a retired teacher who had taught in New London and Ledyard, as an illustrative example. She told Stonington's school board that she is "very very, concerned about CRT being taught in schools across the country." She asked the board if it is being taught in Stonington.

"I'm very concerned with its infiltration in a hidden and implanted way in our very beautiful Connecticut town of Stonington," she told the board, adding that CRT could slip into the local curriculum through national and state standards "and we may not even know it." She added that terms the school system uses such as "diversity" show that CRT is being taught in the schools.   

Norwich Republican Board of Education member-elect Heather Fowler said she did hear about critical race theory from some constituents. She described an experience with her daughter, who is now a recent graduate of NFA, as one of many reasons why she ran for the school board.

"I noticed things my daughter would say and I'd be like, 'Where did that come from, why would you say that? I never taught you anything like that,'" Fowler said. "'I was like, 'Why would you say that all white people are racist and stupid and ignorant?' I said, 'Do you realize that you're white? You know yourself, are you any of those things?' There was a year she called me racist for the whole year. We fought every day. I was convinced she was going to school and coming home and thinking I was evil, that I was bad."

She recalled another time when her son, who was in sixth grade, came home and said, "I don't want to go to school anymore because I don't want them telling me I'm automatically a bad kid and I have white privilege."

Fowler said that while monitoring her kindergarten son's remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, she heard racism being discussed in his social-emotional learning class.

"They're not actually teaching the critical race theory, they're getting around it with the social emotional learning. In certain states that are banning critical race theory, they're using social emotional learning. I didn't realize that until I homeschooled my son last year during COVID," Fowler said. "Probably 65% of the classes that we did watch were extremely constructive, very well put together, teaching kindness and love. But I think that considering he was in kindergarten, the word 'racism' should have never been brought up."

Fowler said she doesn't think students should be learning explicitly about racism until at least middle school. She added that critical race theory becoming an issue did help Republicans.

"It's not just the critical race theory," Fowler said. "That's a huge thing, but there's a lot of indoctrination going on in our schools, and parents are not happy about it."

UConn sociology professor Noel Cazenave has decidedly different views on critical race theory from Fowler. He doesn't think it should be treated as a legitimate issue in K-12 settings. He described a right-wing campaign to bring critical race theory into the public consciousness "based on lies and calculated to distort and win political advantages."

"I've been struggling to get people to not accept the framing of the Republican Party, and to not spend our precious time reacting to critical race theory," Cazenave said. "Every time we're talking about critical race theory without talking about current social justice movements, we're breathing life into a bogus issue. We're telling people who are authoritarian in their inclinations that these lies work."

Cazenave acknowledged that the national conservative effort to make critical race theory a recognizable and overtly negative term has been "very successful."

Groton Democratic Board of Education member Katrina Fitzgerald said she didn't hear about critical race theory from constituents. She said the primary concern among parents was getting kids caught up from the pandemic.

"I think there's more important issues than critical race theory, I only say that because I didn't hear about it from anyone during the campaign," Fitzgerald said. "That's a national thing, and I don't think it's a local problem."

Dan Marsh, who was elected to Salem's Board of Education, said critical race theory was on his mind in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

"I'm not an incumbent, and I haven't been going to Board of Education meetings, but I'm familiar nationally with the issues in local schools, mask mandates, critical race theory, things along those lines," he said about a week before the election. "I'm sure these are things that are going to be a part of Salem's school system."

s.spinella@theday.com

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