ST. LOUS COUNTY — Teachers in the Rockwood School District are calling on the School Board and Superintendent Mark Miles to protect them from “personal attacks and outright threats of violence” as the district grapples with backlash against its diversity and equity programs.
“All staff members should be able to perform their jobs in an environment of safety and mutual respect, without fear of harassment or threat,” reads a letter sent Saturday from the Rockwood National Education Association’s executive board.
Rockwood leaders need to address the “unhealthy and unproductive” environment in the district by clearing up misconceptions about diversity initiatives, supporting teachers when instructing on sensitive topics, creating standards for respectful communication and releasing a “call for civility” in the community, according to the union leaders’ requests.
Like many districts nationwide, Rockwood is working to adopt a more inclusive curriculum with a goal of identifying and closing racial disparities in discipline and test scores. But where advocates see necessary progress, opponents see reverse discrimination and an effort to shame white teachers and students for being part of an oppressive system.
Students and alumni are speaking out about discrimination they faced in school, sharing painful memories at the rallies and on social media.
The debate is unfolding across the country in public and private schools, in state legislatures and on school boards, in private Facebook groups and statewide curriculum committees. The Biden administration has taken criticism for proposing that federal grants for teaching U.S. history prioritize programs that “reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students” and “create inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments.”
It’s no surprise that all this makes people uncomfortable, said Gloria Ladson-Billings, president of the National Academy of Education, an academic research group.
“The moment you make racism more than an isolated incident, when you begin to talk about it as systemic, as baked into the way we live our lives … people don’t like that,” she said. “It runs counter to a narrative that we want to tell ourselves about who we are. We have a narrative of progress, that we’re getting better.”
At least two Rockwood administrators of color said they have received death threats this year, including Brittany Hogan, the district’s director of educational equity and diversity. The second was Terry Harris, Rockwood’s executive director of student services. Hogan and Superintendent Miles have both announced their resignations at the end of the school year.
Hogan and Miles declined interview requests through Rockwood spokeswoman Mary LaPak, who said it has been a challenging year for everyone but that the leaders’ resignations are unrelated.
LaPak also newly acknowledged that the district has provided personal security for some administrators this year, in addition to using metal detectors at School Board meetings.
“There were a number of social media posts and voicemails directed at district administrators that our head of security deemed disturbing and categorized as indirect threats towards district personnel and that’s why the security was provided at their homes,” LaPak said.
"Presenting history from all sides is fair," school board member says.
Rockwood’s union leaders cited no specific threats in their letter, only that some teachers and staff had been targets on social media.
The School Board will address the union letter at its meeting Thursday, LaPak said. In a letter to Rockwood employees on Tuesday, Miles acknowledged “hurtful and disturbing” messages directed at staff.
“I want to assure you that we stand behind our staff, curriculum and our goals ensuring that we are providing an equitable, welcoming and safe learning environment for all students,” he wrote. “Our equity and inclusion work is an integral part of our whole-child approach that recognizes how essential it is to meet the social-emotional needs of our students so that all students feel a sense of belonging, as well as feeling safe and respected so they are equipped to learn and grow.”
Nationally, a new group called Parents Defending Education has collected tips from parents about school districts including Rockwood and Webster Groves that “force our kids into divisive identity groups based on race, ethnicity, religion, and gender.” The group filed a formal complaint with the federal Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights against Webster Groves, citing a June 2020 blog post from Superintendent John Simpson that called for “the dismantling of the inequitable systems and structures within our district.”
A new social studies curriculum in the Webster Groves district that emphasizes equity and social justice sparked a less heated debate before being adopted last month.
Some conservatives believe that schools are promoting critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that examines how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism. It holds in part that racism is woven into the fabric of the nation’s history.
Legislation working through the Missouri House would ban such social studies lessons that identify “people, entities, or institutions as inherently, immutably, or systemically sexist, racist, biased, privileged, or oppressed.” Similar bills have gained traction in Arkansas, Idaho and Oklahoma. The Missouri bill is unlikely to reach the state Senate for a vote before this session ends May 14.
Supporters of the curriculum bans say K-12 public education should be a politics-free, colorblind system. Opponents counter that U.S. schools have never been colorblind and that equity work is critical to address systemic barriers holding back students of color.
“We can’t skip to the part where we say skin color doesn’t matter. First we need to repair the damage in our society that has been created intentionally because of people’s skin color,” said Heather Fleming of In Purpose Educational Services, which provides equity training to local organizations. “My work talks about the benefits of what happens when we work together to make sure we have an inclusive society. What Rockwood and any other school district is trying to do is make sure all students have the opportunity to be successful.”