Like the rest of the country, school leaders are coping with the fallout from a far-right rally last weekend that drew white supremacists and other extremists to Charlottesville, Va., and resulted in the death of at least one counterprotestor and injuries to more than a dozen others people. And many have singled out President Donald Trump’s response for harsh criticism.
Several K-12 organizations and leaders emphatically condemned the Unite the Right rally, which included racist and anti-semitic participants, and descended on Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. And several of them spoke out against Trump’s contention that “both sides,” including counterprotestors, were to blame for the violence.
Case in point: The board of directors of Chiefs for Change, which represents education-redesign oriented district and state leaders, put out a statement saying:
As the nation's top leader, the President of the United States offers a model and example to children throughout this country. Equivocation about racism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and domestic terrorism is intolerable anywhere, but especially from our top elected officials. As a bipartisan coalition of state and school district leaders, we commit to advance civil discourse that stands against evil. We will redouble our efforts to ensure students learn to be responsible adults and patriotic citizens who work toward a far different and more positive vision for this nation, and we urge our fellow leaders to join us in standing strong against hatred and bigotry.
50CAN, a bipartisan state advocacy group, shared similar sentiments. Its alumni include Jason Botel, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, and Jim Blew, who is also rumored to become a top Trump political appointee. The organization said it’s clear that there aren’t “two sides” to this particular issue:
We unequivocally denounce the hate, intolerance, bigotry and violence shown by the forces of evil gathered together under the banner of Nazism and white supremacy in Charlottesville this past weekend. We are also shocked by President Trump's statement that these violent white supremacists have been treated unfairly by the media and that there were "fine people" who marched with torches under a Nazi flag. When you choose to march with Nazis you are rejecting our country's founding belief that all people are created equal and dishonoring the basic convictions of the American political system.
Council of the Great City Schools Executive Director Mike Casserly also took Trump to task:
As the most diverse group of children in American history returns to their classrooms over the next several days, they are getting a hard lesson on intolerance, hatred, and political cowardice. In the face of a national tragedy, our president—and others—have attempted to stoke the fires of division and equate the moral standing of various white supremacy organizations with the justifiable outrage of counterprotesters in Charlottesville. At a time when we need strong, unifying leadership the president has chosen to equivocate, sending the signal that displays of racial hatred have the same valence as the voices of indignation and hope. This kind of thinking warps our common understanding of what freedom and opportunity mean, and it loosens our grip as a nation on our founding principles. These are vile and dangerous sentiments that should be roundly rejected by the citizenry.
The leadership of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers’ union, called on the administration and Congress to investigate terrorism by white supermacists:
Sieg heils and proclaiming white supremacy are threats against our communities. Running people over for saying that black lives matter is attempted, if not actual, murder. And the president of the United States should not equivocate; he should denounce Nazis, the KKK and white supremacy in the most forceful and unambiguous terms. Only one side intended violence and intimidation and hate—the white supremacists—and anyone in a position of power or with a responsibility to keep people safe must not equivocate or mince words.
Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz, who met with Trump one-on-one after his election and endorsed his choice to tap Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, wrote in a letter to her staff and board members:
Like so many of you, I am deeply distressed both by the hateful violence in Charlottesville and by President Trump's refusal to clearly denounce it. Nobody with any empathy for the plight of people of color in this country could respond the way he did. His comments have left many in our community feeling unsafe and uncertain about their place in society. It's one thing to have a President with whose politics you disagree; it's another to have a President who doesn't even seem to care about your welfare.
Former Tennessee Commissioner Kevin Huffman has called on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to resign, saying on Twitter:
.@BetsyDeVosED: if you believe in the potential of all children and, particularly, children of color, please resign your office.
— Kevin Huffman (@k_huff1) August 17, 2017
So far, DeVos has not commented on the president’s remarks on Charlottesville, although it’s almost certain she’ll be asked about it at her next interview. DeVos wrote a memo to her staff condemning ‘racist bigots’ but steered clear of criticizing her boss.
Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Mike Petrilli, a former George W. Bush administration official, says he’s done being a Republican, at least for now:
I changed my party registration this morning to unaffiliated. If the GOP decides to be the party of Lincoln again, I may reconsider someday.
— Michael Petrilli (@MichaelPetrilli) August 16, 2017
Other organizations and individuals condemned the violence, but didn’t comment specifically Trump’s take. That’s likely in part because these groups and people aren’t particularly political, or have a bipartisan membership.
Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents all 50 state chiefs, put out a statement Wednesday saying he was “deeply saddened and troubled” by the news out of Charlottesville. He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and added:
We cannot be apathetic or complacent. We cannot allow this type of hatred to continue to persist. It is through education that we can work together toward positive action that can eradicate this type of hate and create safe, supportive learning environments and a better, more equitable world for all kids—especially those who have been historically marginalized and disadvantaged in our country.
The Institute for Educational Leadership condemned “racist ideology":
The terrible occurrence of violence in Charlottesville is a painful reminder that hate, racism, and xenophobia still exist. The Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) would like to express how deeply saddened we are for those hurt and killed working for social justice. IEL stands up for the causes of those in underserved communities who fight to provide opportunity in the face of poverty, trauma, and inequity. We strongly condemn the racist ideology displayed in Charlottesville and find the hateful actions of white supremacists egregious and unacceptable.
The superintendents and school board members of Charlottesville schools and surrounding Albemarle County put out this joint statement, affirming the need to respect children from every background:
The message from Charlottesville to our nation must be stronger than ever before—that we are a community that values the safety of every person, the dignity of every resident, the respect of every background, the equality of every opportunity and the strength of every collaboration that promotes the common good. As they should be, the values of our communities are found in our public schools. Our schools, after all, are the source of our greatest dreams and aspirations for our children. It is where we learn about the power of ideas, the importance of history, the strength of community and the right of every child to reach their highest potential.
The National Association of State Boards of Education said the events in Charlottesville would “only deepen our commitment” to creating equity in the nation’s schools, and added: “We denounce expressions of hate and intolerance in school and out. We believe in the ability of our public education system to mold a citizenry of diverse ideas with a common ideal, that we are all created equal.”
Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said that schools have a role to play in helping children respect differences “especially when our nation’s morals are being tainted by a select few.”
Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush put out a joint statement this week:
America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms. As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city's most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country.
President Barack Obama sent out this series of tweets, which became among the most popular in Twitter history.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion...” pic.twitter.com/InZ58zkoAm
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 13, 2017
“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love...”
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 13, 2017
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Photo: University of Virginia students, faculty and Charlottesville residents attend a candlelight march across grounds in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 16. Hundreds gathered on the campus for a vigil against hate and violence days after Charlottesville erupted in chaos during a white nationalist rally. (Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress via AP)