Florida county cancels civil-rights seminar for teachers over CRT 'red flags'

Florida county cancels civil-rights seminar for teachers over CRT 'red flags'
Ron DeSantis speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Gage Skidmore

The day after the Florida state Senate's education committee passed a bill banning public schools and private businesses from making people feel "discomfort" when learning about U.S. racial history, a school district in central Florida canceled a teacher training seminar about the civil rights movement that had been months in the planning.

This past Saturday, Dr. J. Michael Butler, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of History at Flagler College in St. Augustine, was supposed to lead a day-long seminar for Osceola County elementary school teachers on "The Long Civil Rights Movement." The event was hosted by the nonprofit National Council for History Education, a leading provider of professional development for history teachers, and was part of a three-year partnership between the council and the district to enrich history education at underserved public schools. (Osceola County, just southeast of Orlando, has a population of close to 400,000, which is nearly two-thirds Black or Latino, and a median household income of $52,000, well below the national median.)

Butler, the author of multiple books about Southern and civil rights history, including most recently "Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980," planned three presentations, covering historic milestones like the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the March on Washington, the integration of the University of Mississippi, and the Montgomery bus boycott. Seminar attendees would then work with a curriculum specialist to translate that history into grade-appropriate lesson plans and classroom resources. A seminar agenda noted that teachers would receive two children's books to consider for classroom use: the elementary-targeted "White Socks Only" and, for middle schoolers, "The Watsons Go to Birmingham." Butler saw the training as part of his career-long mission to teach that "people who are marginalized have a history too, and it's a very inspiring American story."

But last Wednesday afternoon, Butler and his colleagues learned that Osceola school officials were forcing NCHE to cancel the seminar. The district, he was told, had instituted a review committee to investigate all training materials for the possibility that they might promote "critical race theory," and its curriculum director worried the seminar's advance reading materials would raise "red flags."

According to NCHE executive director Grace Leatherman, district officials were particularly concerned about the seminar's use of primary source materials, including decades-old political cartoons about the Great Migration and Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision that established segregation's "separate but equal" doctrine, as well as images of contemporary civil rights protests like Colin Kaepernick kneeling on a football field. Since the committee wouldn't have time to review those materials before Saturday, the seminar was canceled and wouldn't be rescheduled.

To Butler, this was not just the culmination of Florida's year-long demonization of so-called critical race theory — however vaguely or inaccurately defined — but also the realization of something he warned his students about years ago. "When our former president used the term 'fake news,' I told my classes to be aware of what's coming next, and that's fake history," he told me. "If there's a topic that can be censored today, that means there's a precedent for the censoring of any topic in any state moving forward. And that should scare all teachers."

On Thursday, after Osceola's participating teachers were sent notice of the seminar's cancellation, with no explanation, Butler took to Twitter to warn that this is "what the war against CRT in Florida is really about": not keeping teachers from "going rogue," or protecting white children from feeling guilty, but "making it difficult — if not impossible — to teach any history that considers the Black experience," period.

At the broadest level, the seminar was yet another victim of the nationwide right-wing crusade against CRT. In vying to emerge as the face of that fight, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has launched numerous attacks against CRT, or related targets, over the last half-year.

These have included policies equating teaching "that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems" with Holocaust denialism; bans on schools using The New York Times' "1619 Project" or pedagogical concepts like "culturally responsive instruction"; requirements that civics classes teach "portraits in patriotism"; and two bills currently under consideration to establish an annual "Victims of Communism Day," mandating that schools observe the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution to teach about communist dictators, and DeSantis's "Stop W.O.K.E. Act," which would empower private citizens to sue school districts they believe are teaching CRT.

But that fight is also taking place at the local level, including in Osceola County, where the school board's general counsel, Frank Kruppenbacher, has taken repeated aim at the supposed specter of critical race theory in recent months. In October, Kruppenbacher, who has said that "as an American" he finds CRT "frankly frightening," investigated parents' complaints that a district center for new teachers promoted CRT because its website included references to race and "equity." After sending some 60 pages of documents related to parents' complaints to the state Department of Education, last Wednesday Kruppenbacher introduced a draft resolution to ban CRT at the district level, explaining, "We want to educate employees that they've got to adhere to this, and we'll be aggressive with dealing with every report we get," and warning that educators' teaching certificates were on the line. That was the same day that district officials canceled the NCHE civil rights seminar.

An administrative employee in a different Florida school district, speaking to Salon on condition of anonymity, speculated that Osceola's district authorities likely saw that the NCHE seminar would cover civil rights protests and "got so nervous that it was easier not to hold it than to not only have external opposition but internal opposition too," particularly "if your own school board attorney is not going to have your back."

Across Florida's school districts, the employee said, an environment of self-censorship and risk avoidance is becoming commonplace as DeSantis and his education commissioner, Richard Corcoran — who has described the primary purpose of education as instilling moral values — are running a multifaceted approach to overhaul Florida schooling, including by defining the central message of U.S. history and civics as "America was intended as a good place and always will be," and making educators "very afraid to bring up any topic that makes people feel uncomfortable."

The employee noted that their own request for anonymity in speaking to a reporter reflected that environment: "It's a really strange and hard time. Places like Florida and Virginia are living one reality, and places like New York and California are living a different one completely. The combination of this uber-patriotic Americanism, that's defined as 'either you're with us or against us,' and the demonization of questioning, are the worst aspects of fear and anti-intellectualism."

Butler says he has heard from numerous Florida public school history teachers who say their lessons are being scrutinized to see whether they run afoul of the DeSantis administration's new laws and policies. One teacher, Butler relayed, ordered photocopies of a handout for a lesson about the infamous Birmingham church bombing of 1963, only to have her request trigger a phone call from district authorities to her principal, asking what was going on.

In Dunedin High School in central Florida's Pinellas County, history teacher Brandt Robinson has been the target of one parent's attacks for months. First, a student's mother accused him at a July school board meeting of promoting "Marxist indoctrination of our youth," because he'd urged his school board to stand firm against the growing attacks on CRT. Then, after her son briefly enrolled in, and then dropped, Robinson's elective African American history class last August, the mother lodged multiple formal complaints about his curriculum. Specifically, she charged that Robinson's use of historian Nell Irvin Painter's 2006 book "Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present" must mean that Robinson was violating Florida's new ban on teaching materials from the "1619 Project" — even though Painter's book was published 13 years before the Times series.

"What's happening is these groups are conflating CRT with all these other initiatives," as well as basic, factual history, said Robinson. "Then that intimidates school boards. And, to the degree that these boards are politically vulnerable, some are caving."

That pattern is repeating around the country. A report released last Wednesday by UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, studied the local impact of anti-CRT fights, and found that almost 900 U.S. public school districts, representing around 18 million K-12 students, or 35% of the U.S. student body, have been affected by local anti-CRT campaigns. Interestingly, the study notes that — as with the recent finding that participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection were often motivated by changing racial demographics around them — school districts where the percentage of white students has declined sharply in recent years were three times more likely to experience local conflicts over CRT. But across the board, what the study calls anti-CRT "conflict campaigns" have left educators "terrified" to do their work, often without the support of school or district authorities, and sometimes afraid to introduce subjects that might spark anger from parents, politicians or advocacy groups.

While Robinson's school stuck by him — a committee formed to review his curriculum unanimously dismissed the complaining mother's appeal — he said many of his colleagues fear being similarly targeted for a book they've assigned or a discussion they led. On top of the incredible stresses of teaching through the pandemic, he said charges that teachers are trying to "indoctrinate" their students or "teach them to hate our country" have left him, and many other teachers, feeling that they could "break down almost at any moment."

The Osceola School District didn't respond to multiple requests for comment, but in an email to seminar participants obtained by Salon, district superintendent Debra Pace explained that "the district team received the prereading document on Wednesday and felt like we needed an opportunity to review them prior to the training in light of the current conversations across our state and in our community about critical race theory." While the superintendent said she remained committed to "open discussion" about difficult topics, she added that the district must be "mindful of the potential of negative distractions if we are not proactive in reviewing the content and planning its presentation carefully."

Even in a time when caricatures of CRT have become a dominant prop in right-wing political theater, the call for "proactive" reviews of teacher training materials suggests a disturbing new development: the preemptive censorship of straightforward historical instruction — even when aimed at adults rather than students — out of fear that the content might spark community or political outrage.

"It's unfortunate that school districts in what is supposedly the 'freest state' in the nation are so concerned about retaliation from the governor that they feel compelled to review and censor instructional materials," said Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest labor union. "As this kind of second-guessing goes on in districts throughout the state, Florida's public schools are experiencing severe and sometimes overwhelming shortages of teachers and support staff. Inciting fear in our districts and classrooms is not the way to attract more employees. It does nothing to help students."

"What happened in this case is a really good example of how [the anti-CRT discourse] is going to affect everyone, and the kinds of erasure of history or censorship we're going to see," said Kirk Bailey, political director of the Florida ACLU. "In this case, it's even pre-censorship. The legislation being discussed in Tallahassee hasn't even passed, and we're already seeing school districts changing their behavior. I think we just don't know how far it could go."

Butler warned that what happens in Florida could become a disastrous national model, quoting documentary filmmaker Billy Corben's maxim that "the Florida of today is the America of tomorrow."

"That has always resonated with me," Butler said, "because what we've learned from the Florida experience is that, ever since the passage of Brown, this state has perfected the tactics of stonewalling, delaying and complicating the process of integration. That's Florida's contribution to the civil rights narrative: You can't stop it, but you can slow it down. You can stonewall, delay and use rhetoric to say, 'This isn't about civil rights, this is about laws, this is about procedures, this is about local parents determining their own decisions for their children.'"

Today, he said, that historical narrative is playing out again. And the only silver lining he sees is that developments like these may force educators, and the rest of the country, to recognize "what the stakes are in this battle."

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