June 24, 2024

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KASB attorney discourages CRT ban in USD 312 Haven

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The USD 312 Haven School Board could ban critical race theory (CRT) in its schools. But behind the scenes, the district’s superintendent and an attorney from the Kansas Association of School Boards pushed back against the proposal. It sparked a heated email debate that the Sentinel obtained.

When John Whitesel, a Haven USD 312 board member, recommended banning the underlying  CRT principles, the Superintendent of Schools, Clark Wedel, forwarded the proposal to a Kansas Association of School Boards attorney, Luke Sobba. He said he preferred using Whitesel’s plan as guidance.

“I have to admit that I don’t like the idea of making this policy,” Wedel wrote. 

Whitesel’s proposal doesn’t specifically mention critical race theory. Instead, it bans the ideas behind the theory. For example, Whitesel’s policy prohibits the teaching of any form of bias based on the basis of race, sex, or sex stereotyping.

KASB attorney recommends inaction on CRT

Sobba responded that making the proposal the official position of the board could create potential enforcement and liability issues.

“It highlights them as important matters of concern,” Sobba responded in a June 14 email. “For that reason, adopting a new policy on a sensitive topic can (rightly or wrongly) be interpreted as a target message for or against a particular group. On the issue of minorities and their treatment, adopting the proposal as policy could stir misunderstanding and controversy where previously there was none.”

Whitesel responded that it seems prudent to put things into policy that do not represent the values of Haven and therefore should not be taught in USD 312. For instance, the policy as proposed reads, “No teacher, administrator or other employee of the school district, charter school or virtual charter school shall require or make part of a course the following concepts:

  1. one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex…” and it goes on to list a handful of other ideas the policy rejects teaching.

“Unless you really believe that one race or gender is superior to another or that children are born advantaged or disadvantaged based solely on their race or gender, there really is nothing in this policy that I can find that the average parent or student would find objectionable,” Whitesel wrote in an email to Sobba. “In small-town America, these beliefs are held by most of our citizens.”

Attorney worries banning CRT could prevent discussion of historical events

Sobba worried that the policy could disallow discussion of unfortunate historical events if the discussion acknowledged hardships faced by minority groups or women.

“Would teachers be reluctant to teach or discuss certain points of literature or history because the lesson might make Group (X) feel uncomfortable/angry/guilty to be associated with past conduct by ethnic or gender group?” Sobba asked. “If that is the effect, then are schools providing an incomplete view of history and culture in America?”

Whitesel said Sobba seemed confused as to what the policy actually says.

“The policy as written does not say teachers can’t teach things that make Group (X) feel uncomfortable/angry/guilty about things in the past,” Whitesel wrote. “It says you can’t blame an entire ethnic group or sex based on the things individuals did in the past.”

The board member asked if there were parts of the proposal that Sobba objected to on a legal basis.

“I am not really concerned about your opinion on the matter,” Whitesel wrote. “We come to you for legal advice, not moral counsel.”

USD 312 Board member seeks legal opinion, not personal opinion

Sobba responded that it’s never his intent to offer personal or political ideology. However, he wrote he has legal concerns that some of the language in the proposal might constrain the ability to train staff or teach about racism and sexism through examples and case studies. He said much of the proposal reflects interpretations and definitions of discrimination and harassment in existing case law and regulations. So current district policy is sufficient. He wrote that the goal of making it clear to employees that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated can be accomplished through in-service training or curricular guides.

“As a general rule, we do not recommend the adoption of a policy or guidance unless it is required by law or it provides clarity to your staff members in legally and efficiently functioning without the board having to provide direct oversight over all school operations and administrator decisions,” Sobba wrote. “…The board could choose to make a new policy proclamation but I see no reason to do so.”

Whitesel asked the district superintendent, Wedel, to forward Sobba’s emails to the rest of the board. He said the attorney’s main concerns appear to be how some groups might perceive the policy change.

School board to consider CRT ban at July meeting

“I represent the citizens of our district and in small-town America, our voters are looking for us to take a stand against equity and the ideas that people are born racist, sexist or disadvantaged based on their gender or race at birth,” Whitesel wrote to the superintendent. “…Not taking up this banner (on CRT) and fighting for our kids at this critical time would certainly do more harm in our community than not addressing it and taking a firm stand against it.”

The USD 312 school board is set to discuss a policy banning the ideas that inform critical race theory at its July meeting.

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