New laws move teachers away from controversial topics for fear of penalization

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) – New measures that restrict how race is approached in classrooms have created confusion and anxiety for many educators, who in some cases have started to take books down and cancel classes for fear of being penalized.

Education officials banned a class on contemporary issues in a Tennessee district, removed Frederick Douglass’ autobiography from playlists in an Oklahoma school system, and in one case in Texas, counseled teachers to present “opposing” views on the Holocaust.

At least a dozen states have adopted measures this year restricting the way schools teach racism, sexism and other topics. While educators are still waiting to see how they will be enforced, the vagueness of some of the measures, coupled with harsh penalties, including the potential loss of teaching licenses, is already chilling conversations about race in schools and in some cases. case, has consequences that go far beyond the intention of those who approve of the measures.

Matt Hawn, a high school social studies teacher in Tennessee, said he has heard from teachers concerned about how they would teach controversial topics since he himself was fired this spring as state lawmakers finalized new teaching restrictions.

“It certainly warns them, like, ‘What will happen if I teach this? “- because the penalty is so heavy,” said Hawn.

Hawn was fired after school officials said he used material with offensive language and failed to provide a conservative perspective when discussing white privilege in his class on contemporary issues, which has since been eliminated.

Education about race and diversity has grown along with a wider recognition that racial injustice did not end in America with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These efforts have met with a backlash, in particular among Republican voters.

In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race this month by promising to ban critical race theory, a term that has become a substitute for concepts like systemic racism and implicit bias. His Democratic opponent has been criticized for saying parents should not tell schools what to teach.

Some sections of the new laws seem flawless. Tennessee law prohibits the teaching that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex. But other sections are more obscure, except for teaching that promotes division or causes psychological distress in children because of their race or gender.

These vague bans have left teachers worried that any instruction on difficult topics like slavery or contemporary racism could be interpreted by parents as a violation of the law, said Alice O’Brien, general counsel for the National Education Association. .

“These measurements are problematic because you don’t know what they mean and it’s very much in the eye of the beholder,” said O’Brien. “I think it’s worth understanding that every state already has fairly comprehensive K-12 rules in place on what teachers should teach. And they are required to teach the whole history of the United States… not just the parts that we can celebrate. “

Some have cited the new laws as pushing to eliminate educational material.

In Tennessee, a conservative group of mothers from the Nashville, Williamson County suburbs of Moms for Liberty challenged the way schools teach the civil rights movement to second-graders.

In a letter to the Department of Education, Robin Steenman complained that the texts and accompanying teacher’s manual imply that “people of color continue to be oppressed by an ‘angry, vicious, scary, mean, loud, violent, (rude) and (hateful) ‘white people. Books cited by Steenman include “Ruby Bridges Goes to School” and “Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington”.

In Oklahoma, teachers at Edmond public schools said books by authors of color were removed from a list of anchor texts, around which English teachers are building their curriculum. A complaint filed by teachers, students and parents said the district also removed from the curriculum texts commonly taught by black authors, including the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.

School system spokeswoman Susan Parks-Schlepp said some reading assignments were made optional as part of an annual exam to ensure they met state guidelines.

In Texas, a Republican lawmaker has asked a committee he chairs to research information on the use of at least 850 books on topics ranging from racism to abortion.

State Representative Matt Krause, candidate for the state attorney general, said five school districts in Texas had withdrawn books “after receiving objections from students, parents and taxpayers.” Two of the districts confirmed that they had received copies of the letter and were investigating the matter, but did not comment further.

Clay Robinson, spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, said the letter only added to the confusion teachers had faced since the state passed a bill requiring educators to teach “teachers. two sides’ of the subjects.

“Teachers already feel like Big Brother is looking over their shoulders,” Robinson said.

The racial divide in favor of these measures was evident at an Alabama school board meeting in August where the two black members voted against a resolution denouncing “instructions intended to indoctrinate students” in ideologies promoting one race. or a particular gender, while the seven white members voted in favor.

Speaking against the measure, school board member Tonya Chestnut said all children deserve to be in an environment where they feel safe and can appreciate their heritage, but the resolution could “put teachers in a a position where they feel uncomfortable, even fearful, to teach the truth. “

James Copland, director of legal policy at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said the deterrent effects are real, but new, well-tailored laws are needed to show schools what is appropriate and what is not.

He pointed to some episodes, including a teacher in Cupertino, Calif. Who asked elementary school students to “deconstruct” their racial identities and a Philadelphia elementary school that made students appear on an auditorium stage with signs. indicating “Jail Trump” and “Black Power Matters. “

“We don’t want to hold back genuine discussion and lucid study of history,” Copland said. But he said students shouldn’t be forced to subscribe to a set of beliefs around racism and sexism.

Derek W. Black, professor of law at the University of South Carolina and author of “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy,” said these measures were unnecessary. Federal civil rights law already makes discrimination in the classroom illegal, he said.

He is confident that some teachers teach racism and sexism badly or that some parents have legitimate grievances, but said they should “comply with the other 1,001 legitimate grievances.”

“Why is it # 1?” Politics. That’s right. Politics.”

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