Shawnee Mission school board candidates on the issues: Diversity, inclusion and critical race theory

Students line up

Older students line-up and walk to visit specials — music, art, physical education and library — teachers.

In August, we asked our readers about the issues you wanted to hear the candidates running for Shawnee Mission school board address. Based on your feedback, we developed a five-item questionnaire touching on the most important issues to patrons of the district.

Each day this week, we will publish the candidates’ responses to one of five questions. Today, we are publishing candidates’ responses to the following question:

Diversity, equity and inclusion programs have been under scrutiny in recent months as national media personalities and politicians raise alarms about the teaching of “critical race theory” or ideas linked to it. Do you support the district’s current approach to diversity, equity and inclusion? Why or why not? What does the term “critical race theory” mean to you?  

Below are the answers the Post received from the candidates on this issue:

SM West Area

Sean Claycamp

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are great things and are particularly important in the SM West area. We want students to feel like they belong regardless of their race, gender, economic status, or, as they mature, their sexuality. Affinity groups as students mature are a good way to enhance student’s feeling of belonging. Also, any incidents of bullying or marginalizing students for differences of any kind should be dealt with severely.

The concern for me is we appear to be on a path of removing important guardrails from students’ lives. Young people need expectations, boundaries and accountability to prepare them to compete globally. As students enter college or the workplace, they will quickly become acquainted with both expectations and accountability. There is no better time to prepare them for this then when they are in school, especially high school.

We need to make sure ALL students get “over the bar” and graduate with the skills needed to prosper. SMSD should provide all sorts of strategies to help a student graduate and enter the world. Some students need a lot more help. Maybe the student’s family has economic challenges; maybe the student is an ELL student and had the additional challenge of learning English; maybe the student has a defined risk factor such as dyslexia or ADHD. There are hundreds of reasons to give a student enhanced instruction. However, you do a student a disservice by pushing them through the system and not expecting some level of academic performance commensurate with their capabilities.

Equity grounded in equality is an excellent strategy. Equity used as a strategy to create equal outcomes is a poor strategy and almost always creates downward equity not upward.

Shifting to critical race theory: the term CRT is being used, but a more accurate label is a culturally relevant pedagogy that focuses on anti-racism.

When I read Dr. Ibram X Kendi’s books on anti-racism, I found myself agreeing strongly with his stance that as Americans we need to be willing to speak up for marginalized people and challenge our friends and families if they express bigoted views. We are teaching our children to speak up, and I appreciate SMSD reinforcing this aspect of anti-racism in the classroom. Kindness matters. Specific to the teaching of history, the full American story should be told in our classrooms — Jim Crow, red lining, Japanese internment, etc. It is all on the table.

Where it crosses the line for many is if we begin to teach that the United States is a nation that is irrevocably flawed and must be rebuilt in a more equitable way. That teaching fails to acknowledge the progress we have made as a nation. It’s possible to teach our students that in America we still have racial and other demographic issues to work through while acknowledging we have made a significant amount of progress.

Parents want assurances that political discussions and controversial issues are treated with discretion in our classrooms. There are guidelines around this in the SMSD education handbook, but are they always followed? Does the curriculum itself infringe on these guidelines?

I strongly encourage all of America’s history to be taught but in a way that doesn’t have a call to action as its end result. The call to action politically, spiritually, etc., that comes from me the parent and not from the curriculum.

We frequently remind our kids to treat every person with respect and dignity. I know SMSD teachers are reinforcing this, and for that, we thank them.

April Boyd-Noronha

I support the Shawnee Mission School District’s current approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but more can and should be done to address longstanding DEI concerns, specifically the hiring of diverse staff.

The district’s current efforts reflect years of work by community members to raise cultural awareness in our district. The cultural competency training staff receives is to ensure our district respects the unique differences of our diverse student population. I applaud these measures. Our district must continue to work diligently to recruit qualified staff and administrators of color. While I certainly understand the obstacles to recruiting and retaining qualified candidates of color, we must not choose to make hurdles permanent obstacles. Children deserve to see diversity reflected in the classroom, among administrators and district leadership. It will require our recruitment efforts to go beyond historically black colleges and universities, and into the corporate, business, and nonprofit sectors to find professionals who desire to make a career pivot into education.

Critical Race Theory (or CRT) is a graduate-level theory that seeks to address, what it asserts, is the systemic nature of racial oppression. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this theory, this theory is not being taught in the Shawnee Mission School District nor any other school district in Kansas, per the Kansas Board of Education. The politicization of CRT to attack much-needed diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives happening in school districts across the country is both unfortunate and unsurprising. As our nation becomes more diverse, these changes have not always been met with acceptance, but it is my belief that our children deserve to attend schools that welcome all and resists none; our collective differences represent a community benefit, not a detriment.

I do not support the politics of division. I support a pedagogy that respects the contributions and humanity of all Americans.

At-Large

Heather Ousley (incumbent)

Yes, I do support the district’s efforts.

Three years ago, when we began the community strategic planning process, we sought input from people throughout SMSD, from parents, to educators, patrons, administrators and students. One of the most repeated themes during this planning process, as a goal and defining feature of the Shawnee Mission School District, is that we are proud of our diversity, we view it as a valuable strength and asset, and most importantly, that our community wants all our children to learn in an environment that is safe and welcoming for them.

Working from this premise, it became a priority to educate all SMSD staff members on cultural competency and to have the tools they needed to ensure students from every background would feel safe and succeed in our schools. In addition to this training, the District has also: (1) created a Diversity Coordinator position to make sure we were emphasizing a holistic approach to DEI throughout the district’s management; (2) worked to increase recruitment of a diverse applicant pool to ensure a more diverse workforce, and that students can see leaders who look like them throughout the district; and (3) created a superintendent’s DEI advisory committee to help the superintendent incorporate their guidance and recommendations into their views on the district.

Finally, I am very appreciative of the school board listening to student leaders and the Shawnee tribe and voting unanimously to update our school mascot policy. As we enter our 100th year as a district, I think it is very exciting to have a new and more inclusive mascot at our original high school. I love the fighting Bison mascot selected by the students and community!

As for critical race theory: it is typically taught at the graduate level, or in law school, and it applies critical theory, which is an approach to studying social, historical and legal structures that shape our society, to issues of race.

Generally speaking, it looks at the systemic impact of racism built into our society through the legal system and historical practices, and how this continues today. For example, critical race theory would allow us to view the lack of diversity in some northeast Johnson County communities as stemming from historical racist red-lining practices that banks used to deny loans and restrictive covenants but perhaps continuing in the present day in certain areas due to financial barriers, a lack of ordinances prohibiting source of income discrimination or a failure to construct affordable housing. Critical Race Theory applies the practice of connecting current inequities in society to how we have structured our laws both in the past and in the present. For the most part, very few people outside of civil rights law practices have familiarity with or have studied critical race theory that I am aware off. The American Bar Association has a good review of the practice of critical race theory.

Unfortunately, the term has been weaponized to attack all diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, in an attempt to stop or discredit efforts to ensure equitable access for all students. There are anti-public education lobbyists who have for years created wedge issues with which to encourage families to leave public school and demand vouchers for private schools in order to profit off of public education dollars. These same privatizers have misused CRT to increase outrage with public education, to promote their own agenda of dismantling public school.

Brian Neilson

This is what I support: www.FairforAll.org.

Corwin Deep Equity training is what I don’t support, and somebody has posted an analysis of it using excerpts of the Corwin materials here.

I have also had the chance to read the facilitator manuals and view the facilitator training DVDs in the above video, and I note that whoever did this provided all the links to the district board documents supporting all the contracts and facts in the YouTube video if you click “Show More”.

The district has spent nearly $500,000 on diversity, equity and inclusion and chose one of the most divisive, hate-filled, oppressor-versus-oppressed curricula available. Teachers have been in contact with me that wish they did not have to go through this training, and it only gets worse in Phases 4 and 5 this year, which is when the Chandler School District discontinued the Corwin Deep Equity training. (Two teachers’ public comments in Arizona are at the very end of the YouTube video linked above). There are more balanced ways to teach about our past and to lift every human up instead of putting some down.

If your kids are participating in the “second step” contracted initiative, this is also part of the DEI forced indoctrination. I opted my children out of second step and all school provided counselors and social worker programs. We will provide that counseling privately if our children need it, and I do not believe that weekly counseling around social and emotional learning is needed if kids are exhibiting all the qualities of being happy and growing in a secure home. We need to return to providing such services to children with more exceptional emotional needs.

I think the web links above speak pretty well to my position. I have also posted frequently on my campaign’s Facebook page on this subject, and I think that is more comprehensive than an essay for this question.

SM East Area

Mary Sinclair (incumbent)

Yes, I support the district’s approach to diversity, equity and inclusion which at its core is about creating opportunities for every SMSD student to be college and career ready.

The work of diversity, equity and inclusion should not be conflated or confused with critical race theory. Diversity, equity and inclusion is about every student feeling a sense of belonging and welcome at school, along with all staff and parents. We know from decades of research that students are more likely to remain engaged in learning and graduate from high school if they feel like they belong. We also know that obstacles to high school completion and barriers to belonging disproportionately include poverty, disability, language proficiency and ethnicity. The focus on diversity, equity and inclusion directs the work of the district to be aware of these potential barriers and intentional about creating opportunities for every student to successfully achieve their personalized learning plan. Recent examples of this work range from professional development, to updating non-discrimination and school mascots policies, revising the student discipline code and forming the SMSD Recruit team.

My understanding is that critical race theory is an advanced field of graduate studies that emerged about 40 years ago from legal scholars. Critical race theory is not part of K-12 public school curriculum, nor a part of the SMSD curriculum. SMSD curriculum is guided by the state education standards, including History, Government, and Social Studies which are intended “to prepare students to be informed, thoughtful, engaged citizens as they enrich their communities, state, nation, world, and themselves.”

Any new district curriculum is pilot tested by a task force of SMSD educators and students before it is recommended for adoption by the school board. The school board recently adopted new social studies resource materials which were presented at the April 2021 board workshop.

Zach Roberts

No, I do not support the district’s current efforts.

In 2019, the district contracted with Corwin Publishing for the Deep Equity professional development program, authored by Gary Howard, to provide DEI training for the district. All staff are required to participate in the training. I have reviewed the program, which is based on Howard’s book, “We Can’t Lead Where We Won’t Go.” The training is focused on systems of power and marginalization based on identity and intersectionality. The Youth Equity Stewardship program [also part of Corwin Deep EQuity] is designed for students, with the intent that young people be trained in social justice to become change agents in their community. The public school system should not be a training ground for student activists.

For staff, the program uses a “train the trainer” model, ultimately involving peer-to-peer evaluations based on visible actions or behaviors that demonstrate dedication to the training. Because of this evaluation process, it compels speech and action in the name of ideas that are not universally accepted. It is a violation of the rights of staff who may not agree with the premise.

Critical race theory is traditionally understood to be a lens through which social and legal interaction is viewed and inequality is examined. Deep Equity assumes implicit biases and systemic injustice maintained by power. The program intends that education be a tool of social justice and that teaching be a redistributive mechanism.

Critical Theory, originating in the 1930’s Frankfurt School (Institute for Social Research), is a post-Marxian analysis of power dynamics as a result of social and cultural differences rather than economics. The methodology endeavors to identify and problematize socially defined normative ideas and illustrate failures. The output tends to represent what the theorist feels ought to be rather than present realities.

Critical race theory is the examination of power dynamics in the context of race. It presumes racism to have a quality of permanence and, therefore, is ubiquitously engrained in the structural framework of society. What follows is the belief that all social disparities are only a result of systemic racial oppression. Truth and theory are not the same. The foundational premise of critical race theory is false. Racism does indeed exist, but the answer to every question is not racism. Critical race theory is further flawed in its abject refusal to acknowledge the positive progress for civil rights and equality that has occurred over the last 100 years.

On Wednesday, we will publish the candidates’ responses to the following question: 

There’s been increased attention in recent years to the need to provide alternative paths for students who are not interested in or able to attend college. What should the district be doing for non-college bound students?