Essex becomes battleground in public school culture wars | Education | Seven days
A little after 6 p.m. last Friday, people started flocking to Essex Center Grange Hall #155, an austere white-plank building that shares a parking lot with Frank’s Motorcycle Sales & Service. In sweatshirts and flannels, sweater sets and blazers, citizens gathered for a public forum focused on critical race theory. Impressions of articles from right-wing news outlets, including the period time and the Federalist, were scattered on long tables at the back of the meeting room. “How public schools indoctrinate children without almost anyone noticing,” read one headline.
As the crowd grew, people arranged additional metal folding chairs in rows. By the 6:30 p.m. start time, an audience of more than 100 people, including Vermont GOP chairwoman Deb Billado and conservative blogger Guy Page, had joined the mostly maskless and standing crowd.
Underhill Republican Party Chairwoman Ellie Martin had hosted the meeting. “I love my country, I love my grandchildren and I love you all,” Martin told the attentive crowd. “Remember, these children of ours are our treasures. They are the future of our country. Without them, we have no country.”
Several months ago, Martin helped organize a bus trip for Vermonters to Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 6 pro-Trump rally that turned into the headquarters of the U.S. Capitol. (Vermont residents were not among the hundreds charged in connection with the riot.)
Page spoke next and led the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance – hands on hearts and eyes fixed on an American flag in front of the room – followed by a full-voiced rendition of the first verse of “America (My Country, ‘It’s from You).”
The first of the guest speakers was Liz Cady, a newly elected Essex Westford School District board member who has been an outspoken critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, the school district’s equity policy, and critical race theory. .
The theory, which originated in legal academia in the 1970s, posits that racism is embedded in systems and institutions such as schools. Last September, then-President Donald Trump thrust the term into national consciousness when he ordered government agencies to stop training staff who employ it. Conservative commentators, including Megyn Kelly and Charlie Kirk, have derided the concept as the epitome of liberal awakening. In recent months, Republican-dominated legislatures in Arizona, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and other states have advanced legislation to ban critical race theory in schools. They argue that it is unpatriotic and divisive, and teaches white children to be ashamed of themselves and their ancestors.
Cady, who lives in Essex, attacked a Courageous Conversation training for educators that the Essex Westford School District offered in 2019. Superintendent Beth Cobb described it in a newsletter as “a seminar that helps teachers , students, and administrators to understand the impact of race on our lives, work, and learning” and “investigate the role racism plays in institutionalizing achievement disparities.”
Cady called Courageous Conversation an example of critical race theory and said it is based on the idea that our country is inherently racist.
“Most people in America, certainly most people I’ve met in Vermont, don’t care about the color of your skin. They care about the content of your character,” Cady said, paraphrasing “I Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Have a Dream Speech.” His audience applauded enthusiastically.
Cady also questioned Essex Westford’s proposed equity policy, which she said the school board will vote on in mid-June. She said one of her tenets – that marginalized staff and students should be able to participate in affinity groups or gatherings in which people with common identities can connect and support each other – was only a ‘nicer’ way to promote segregation.
“Our public schools should be free from ideologies and theories, and they should focus on providing an excellent basic education for all students,” she said. “[Critical race theory] and all its derivatives, however beautiful the words they use, should not be in our public schools.”
Directly across the street, another group of local people gathered inside the Essex Center United Methodist Church. The meeting was called by State Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky (P/D-Essex) in response to the barn hall meeting. These participants also discussed their frustrations with the school district’s handling of race. But their point of view was very different.
“My husband is a person of color, and we regularly wonder if it’s safe to have children, and I don’t think that’s the community we should live in,” Vyhovsky told the audience. The 40 or so attendees all wore masks but remained socially distanced by sprawling in the church’s community hall. “In all of these conversations,” she continued, “the voice we haven’t heard much is that of our students.” She then cleaned her microphone using a Clorox wipe and handed it out to a panel of six Essex High School juniors and seniors. They were from the Social Justice Union, a student club created last year.
Senior Tilly Krishna, the high school’s student body president, said recent efforts to bring discussions about race to school have been met with apathy and ignorance, including among teachers who are supposed to help lead them.
“Most white adults have no idea how to talk about racism at all,” she said, prompting laughter from listeners.
“It’s so hard to get people to care about this,” said another senior, Abby Brooks.
For the next 90 minutes, the students answered questions from adults who supported them in finding ways to help. Maybe teachers need to be trained, one person said. Others pressed Vyhovsky and state Rep. Marybeth Redmond (D-Essex Junction) about state policies that would encourage a more diverse faculty.
One participant, Roy V. Hill II, grabbed attention with his slow, gravelly voice. He applauded the panel of young women for their work and suggested another reason for the resistance they encountered. The sanitized version of American history as typically taught in public schools, he said, is a form of “indoctrination,” and the ignorance that white teachers and students claim when they are confronted with their own racial identity serves to protect their social power.
“The elephant in the room,” Hill said, “is fear.”
Back in the barn room, Essex High School senior Alex Katsnelson, dressed in the hipster formal uniform of a skimpy black tie, fitted blazer and bright white vans, reflected on what he called the “overtly political presentations” he experienced during his school council. time, a non-academic block of the school day intended for student discussion. In one instance, he said, students were shown “a piece of art” from a newspaper depicting “characters” such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, then asked to reflect. how their whiteness had contributed to the death of these people. “That’s why we have fifth graders coming home saying they wish they were black,” Katsnelson said.
“They show our kids these political things and then tell them to join them in pushing their agenda. How else can you describe it other than accepted indoctrination?” He asked.
Sen. Russ Ingalls (R-Essex/Orleans), who was elected to the Vermont Legislative Assembly in 2020, also spoke out and lambasted the Democratic Party with generalizations. When the Senate recently voted 29 to 1 to declare racism a public health emergency in Vermont, Ingalls voted “no.”
“Democrats believe that all police officers are racist, and they also believe that no one should be in jail and that the vast majority of those who are incarcerated are there through no fault of their own,” Ingalls said. “Democrats also want you to know you’re a racist. You don’t even know you are, but you are.” Several audience members chuckled.
In a question-and-answer session that followed, community members asked how they could stop the teachings about race.
Running for school board or city or state government was the only way, Page told the crowd. “You will never change your mind, people, so you have to change them“, he said of the office holders.
A woman has recounted an incident at Essex High School in which her daughter watched in horror as classmates reprimand a student after he told them he had a Confederate flag belonging to her late grandfather hanging in the his room.
“I think the teacher was put in a position where if he stepped in and said something, then was he going to get attacked?” she said. “The classroom was out of control.” She asked Katsnelson if this kind of incident was common in high school.
“That’s probably where things are headed,” Katsnelson said. “And it might not even be the Confederate flag. It might just be because you’re white. It’s the end result of scolding someone for their race and that anti-white rhetoric.”
A soft-spoken woman with a school-aged child said she was appalled that her son’s teacher told his class: ‘If you’re not anti-racist, you’re racist’.
“I just hope people will join me in pointing out how unfair it is for young children who shouldn’t have to choose sides,” she said. “I don’t think fourth, third and second graders should have to think about it at all.”
Several people expressed their pleasure to be in a group among others with similar perspectives.
“I came here ready to attack you guys. I didn’t know I was with like-minded people,” said a man standing in the back of the room. The crowd laughed.
“It’s across the street,” someone joked. They laughed again.