Less than a month after Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law a bill that severely curtails classroom discussions on race, Regan Killackey, an English teacher at Edmond Memorial High School noticed that his district’s stated efforts to better serve its students of color started to morph.
Administrators stopped mandating a diversity training program for teachers. Teachers no longer required students to read To Kill a Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun, two classic pieces of literature about acts of racism. And administrators told teachers to avoid using words in the classroom like “diversity” and “white privilege,” Killackey alleges in a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU.
It was just a year ago, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, that the district’s superintendent doubled down on fighting all the ways racism permeates the school’s hallways and denies a litany of opportunities for students of color who make up more than 40 percent of its student body. But now, Killackey said, with the state threatening to pull the licenses of educators who violate the new law and the accreditation of their districts, all those efforts seemed to be in peril.
“As a teacher, especially with the threat of losing your teacher license, what are you going to do? You’re not going to teach about race,” said Killackey. “You’re going to go ahead and keep your job.”
Thirteen states now have passed into law similarly but loosely worded bills that their authors say are intended to prevent teachers from indoctrinating students with political ideas and make white students feel “anguish” or “guilt” for racist actions by previous generations. More than eight states are set to consider similar bills early next year.
But while the Oklahoma law’s intentions is to preserve the feelings of white children, teachers who joined the ACLU lawsuit against Oklahoma, one of the first states to pass such a bill, say that state’s law is silently doing irreversible academic harm to Asian, Black, Latino, and Native American students, who today make up the majority of America’s student body.
Because America’s student body is rapidly diversifying, yet its teaching force has remained overwhelmingly white, administrators in recent years, at the demands of parents, have put in place initiatives to include voices of color in curriculum, rid teachers of racial biases, and more directly address individual and systemic acts of racism when they see it.
Oklahoma’s law explicitly bans mandated diversity training for teachers. It’s vague when it comes to what sort of discussions are and are not allowed in the classroom. But teachers say they’re so fearful of the law’s consequences—especially the loss of their licenses— that they’re censoring themselves in the classroom on all things dealing with race. And, they say, administrators, afraid of having to respond to complaints, have rid their district of almost every initiative that directly addresses racial inequality.
“As written, the prohibitions are either solutions searching for a problem or are written in such a vague and confusing way that teachers have no idea what content or what conduct may or may not be covered,” said Megan Lambert, the legal director of Oklahoma’s ACLU chapter.
The organization argues in its lawsuit that the law is sweeping, arbitrary and unconstitutional, effectively violating teachers’ First Amendment rights and weakening students’ knowledge of the state’s racist history.
“[We] feel that they’re just trying to cover up what was actually done to our ancestors,” said Mary Topaum, the director of Oklahoma’s American Indian Movement chapter, Indian Territory, which signed onto the lawsuit. Because of the dearth of classroom discussions on race, culture and history, Native American students face harassment and alienation, the organization alleges. “Every time we try to bring the correct history up because it’s still affecting us today with the generational trauma, we’re told to get over it.”
Teachers in a majority Black district are told to stick to the standards
Even in majority Black districts, where administrators and teachers have long been open and honest about identity and how racism interacts with their daily lives, teachers are second-guessing their Black history lessons and how they respond when students bring up in class racist acts in the news, such as police brutality disproportionately targeted at Black men.
“Banning these conversations ... means maintaining an educational environment that is unwelcome to our students of color,” said Anthony Douglas, the president of NAACP’s Oklahoma chapter, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
In Millwood, Okla., where more than 95 percent of students are Black and 80 percent of teachers are Black, Millwood High School English teacher, Anthony Crawford, another plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, described talking about race this year as “scary.”
When the law was first passed, Crawford asked his superintendent for a list detailing everything he could not say because of the law.
The district then offered a training where administrators dissected for teachers the state’s standards to ensure everything teachers are discussing adheres to the new law. (Advocates of color have long complained that Oklahoma’s history standards omit stories about systemic and individual acts of racism.) And administrators directed Crawford to document everything he was discussing in case anyone complains.
“To me this is... a checkmate on Black and brown students here in this nation,” he said. “Because the more they try to restrict certain truths, certain lessons, they’re literally indoctrinating us to believe that America was one way, when that is not the actual reality.”
‘The garbage of CRT ... is teaching our children to be racist’
In the Edmond district, spokeswoman Susan Parks-Schlepp said the district “shuffled” teachers’ book materials after the law was passed and made the contents of a “diversity module” of its annual training “available for self-enrollment.” She also said the district clarified in updated guidance that teachers could use terms such as “diversity” if they tied the word’s use to state standards.
Over this past summer, Edmond’s administrators attempted to explain to teachers what was and was not allowed to be taught under the law, according to documents provided to Education Week by ACLU.
“Nothing in this law talks about critical race theory,” administrators said in a document distributed to teachers at the beginning of this school year. “This law does not prohibit conversations about race, ethnicity, diversity, or gender. You still have all the tools you had before, and as always, do not interject your opinion.”
But in recent months, school board meetings have been bombarded by angry parents alleging that board members through their policies are promoting “liberal agendas” and indoctrinating students with their “Marxist lens.”
A couple of parents also claimed that the district’s social-emotional learning curriculum was just a rebranded name for critical race theory.
“The garbage of CRT—or SEL as you’d like to call it—is teaching our children to be racist,” a parent said during public comments at the November board meeting. “You’re teaching them to hate our country.”
Superintendent Angela Grunewald soon after wrote a letter posted on the district’s website in response to the parents’ accusations.
“Inclusion is not CRT,” she wrote. “It is important to the leadership at Edmond Public Schools that every student has a place in our schools.”
Meanwhile, Killackey, the Edmond Memorial High School English teacher, said he’s had to upend the way he handles classroom discussions on race.
“It upsets me,” he said. “Because ... I want to talk about these things openly and honestly with all of my students, and they need to be talked about openly and honestly...”.
“Our district was doing everything the right way,” he said about last year’s initiatives. “I would hope that they would have just had an honest conversations about [the law] and said we trust your professionalism, we trust you as a teacher and we trust you’ll do the right thing.”