By: Mark Glennon*
The day itself mattered little — one high school’s all day seminar on racial civil rights, controversy over which captured national headlines. The enduring, bigger lesson is something different — its about how much lasting harm can be done by an imperious school board to an outstanding school and to the entire community it serves.
This is about what happens when a school board, because it’s secure in its position despite being democratically elected, becomes autocratic, hypocritical, dishonest, incompetent, smug and outright insulting to minority viewpoints. Think that’s exaggeration? Read on.
For schools, the buck stops with school boards. The board of New Trier High School bears final responsibility for what happened in its district in the suburbs north of Chicago. It failed its community miserably. The only benefit of that failure is that the cover is off: Exposure of more of the same from that board and other school boards has commenced.
I was among the parents, Parents of New Trier, who objected to the curriculum for the day, which we viewed as substitution of one-sided, leftist dogma for education. I wrote about it earlier here, as did many others locally and nationally, who you can easily find. To us, this was about more than how to deal with racism. It was about tolerance for diversity of opinion and the importance of education that exposes students to that diversity.
If something good happened at the seminar, it was that multi-sided debate was allowed. It was students themselves, however, who initiated that debate for the most part, they tell me. But kudos to the teachers who facilitated it. I was especially impressed, and flattered, that my son’s history teacher played a WBEZ radio interview of a parent on the other side and me. I can also report that the barrage of hateful email and comments (some of it is linked here) sent by many parents, alums and students has abated. Thank you to the others who made reasoned, principled and open-minded comments about why you think my side is wrong.
But New Trier’s board was anything but reasoned, principled and open-minded, from start to finish:
It’s the insults that incensed us the most. The board insulted the integrity and character of seminar critics. In a written statement, Board President Greg Robitaille said, “We are not going to, for example, question the very existence of racism in furtherance of some extreme notion of balance.” Not a single seminar critic ever questioned the existence of racism. And the board failed to correct or amend a similarly insulting statement made by the school’s Superintendent, Linda Yonke. “The history of civil rights in our country is not a controversial issue; it did happen,” she told the Chicago Tribune as if somebody disagrees with that. With comments like that from the board and the school, it’s no surprise we received as much profane hate mail as we did, even from our neighbors and parents of our children’s’ classmates.
• They should have seen the strife coming and avoided it from the start. The curriculum for the day was certain to raise objections from moderates and conservatives; 40% of students didn’t attend school at all last year for a similar seminar. Likewise, they should have expected the vicious, divisive counteraction from some on the left. It would have been so easy to design a schedule for the day that would have satisfied everybody — that simply reflected the same range of topics and viewpoints about race commonly discussed across the nation.
• After the controversy broke out, they again could have accommodated our request to make the seminar more balanced. That’s all we asked for. No, not a single change would be made, said both the school Superintendent and the board. Why? Because that would have been too difficult administratively, they said. Oh please. How hard would it have been, for example, to replace the section scheduled for the Equal Rights Amendment, which has been dead for decades, with a presentation by Cory Brooks, the black pastor from Chicago’s Southside who offered to speak? Or, drop the section on “racism from a dance perspective” in favor of a talk by one of the black parents at New Trier who criticized the seminar. It was simply dishonest to claim changes like that couldn’t have been made.
• They claimed the seminar was already balanced. Two board members did acknowledge the obvious — that it wasn’t balanced, but they didn’t fight on the issue. Suffice it to say that anybody who thought it was balanced is living in the very “bubble” that the seminar was supposed to be fixing.
• They ignored what should be an obvious duty of any school board — to maintain balance on controversial topics — which is also a written school policy.The board permitted — negligently at best and perhaps with the school’s help — an utterly hypocritical, deceitful and inappropriate campaign to secretly support the seminar by Mimi Rodman and the Illinois chapter of Stand for Children, a 501(c)(4), of which she is Executive Director.
Here’s what happened: Ater a news report uncovered Stand for Children’s involvement, Rodman admitted on Facebook, “Stand’s c4 helped build the online petition, send a few emails, and order the banner and campaign buttons.” That’s after seminar supporters repeatedly claimed that Parents of New Trier was funded by outside sources. It’s not, being entirely organic.
The supporting petition itself was phony because it was little more than a generic endorsement of the concept of the seminar, which was not at issue. At a school board meeting about the seminar, immediately after agreeing with seminar critics that the content of the seminar should not be determined by popularity, she rolled out a huge banner with the names of all who had signed the petition.
It also turned out that solicitations to sign the petition included requests for donations to Stand for Children, though a donor would have had to look hard and long to see that. Email addresses collected in the petition process have now been used for other communications from Stand for Children, though those have apparently been retracted and apologies sent — after the whole matter was exposed in the news.
And we’d love to know whether the huge number of seminar critics who attended the school board meeting was supplemented by outsiders — activists solicited by Stand for Children. Attendees included quite a few wearing “Nasty Woman” shirts who booed Rev. Corey Brooks, a seminar critic, when he spoke. Let’s just say they didn’t seem like typical New Trier moms.
The school board has never disavowed, apologized for or made any comment on what Rodman and Stand for Children did, not to mention any of the other strife they provoked.
• Finally, the school’s policy about mandatory attendance at the seminar can only be described as spineless duplicity. The seminar was a regular school day, and even a parentally excused absence meant students couldn’t attend extracurricular activities that day, which happened to be a critical day for Spring sports tryouts. Because many parents said they simply would not allow their kids to attend, the school privately told our group that kids could skip the seminar without any repercussions. But they refused to make a public statement to that effect. Only two reasons for that seem apparent. Either the school wanted to maintain the coercion to attend, or it was afraid of an ugly backlash it would face from the left if it made any concession.
About a quarter of students stayed home entirely. Any truly racist kid (I think there are some at New Trier) who did attend probably was among those who skipped the lectures and went to the library, an option that was given, or spent the time on his cellphone. The good news is the affair has sparked inquiry into the the same and similar things going on at other schools. We’ve heard from parents and teachers at other high schools wrestling with the same issues. Evanston Township High School is chief among them. From the descriptions we’ve heard, it’s utterly repressive.
And reporters are now focused on spending for teacher training at New Trier and other schools that may be as far left as was the seminar.
According to one report, New Trier New Trier has paid $108,583 in consulting fees to Massachusetts-based SEED, or Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity, which states its mission is to train teachers to acknowledge systems of white “oppression, power, and privilege.” Many of of the payments were hidden in district finance reports as “grounds supplies” and grouped with building maintenance and landscaping items, that story says.
Anther $88,614 to teach staff why “whiteness” causes black and Hispanic students to score lower on standardized tests went from New Trier to Pacific Education group, according to another report. For some background on the disastrous impact Pacific Education Group had on St. Paul, Minnesota schools, see last month’s City Journal article. I hope reporters continue to dig and inform us exactly what is taught by SEED and Pacific Education Group at New Trier and elsewhere.
But what I most hope came from our group’s work is that we helped take down that “not wanted” sign put up by the school and by those who went after us so viciously. New Trier township is now solidly left, so the school board is now, too. That’s OK. That’s democracy.
It’s the intolerant elements of the left that cannot be allowed to prevail. They are ascending across the country, particularly on college campuses. It’s they who made “liberal” an epithet by betraying the classical meaning of the term. Free debate of minority viewpoints, especially when those viewpoints are no small minority nationally, is the foundation of an open society and quality education.
A simple statement from the board acknowledging that they handled the seminar poorly would also help take that sign down, but there’s no reason to think that’s coming.
Still, let’s hope that tolerance in all its forms ultimately prevails.
UPDATE 3/22/17: One school board member had the courage to dissent, John Myefski. Kudos to him, and regrets for wrongly including him with the rest of the board. See an article linked here about a subsequent board meeting.
*Mark Glennon is founder of WirePoints. Opinions expressed are his own.