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‘Let’s come together’: Forsyth Superintendent hopes to unite community in DEI plan talks after hearing third round of feedback
7.20 BOE
Community members who have crowded the school district office in recent months to speak on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan will soon be able to take part in online surveys and in-person focus groups to provide their feedback. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Students and residents filled the Forsyth County Board of Education’s regular meeting for the third time in recent months in an effort to share concerns about the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan with board members and the superintendent.

Nearly 40 community members from both sides of the argument — either for or against the district’s DEI plan — spoke directly to the board and public.

Those who do not approve of the plan shared many of the same worries brought up during previous meetings, including the concern that the DEI plan is too similar to Critical Race Theory.

Critical Race Theory is based on a scholarly body of work, which theorizes that different aspects of American life and societal systems are based in discriminatory practices.

After hearing from community members in May, the board released a statement saying the school system “does not and will not” teach Critical Race Theory in its schools.

‘Blanket statements’

Other opponents of the plan did not mention Critical Race Theory, but instead pointed out the lack of conservative, Christian values represented in the plan and in Forsyth’s schools. Caroline Andrews, a recent graduate of FCS, said she has seen a “double standard” in the school system.

Andrews said she was grateful this past year to serve as president of her school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter, but when they created posters with Bible verses written on them, school leadership denied a request to display them. She said school leadership saw the posters as a form of religious endorsement.

She said other school clubs and groups were allowed to display similar posters.

While the school system is still in the early stages of implementing the DEI plan, Andrews said she feels Christian students are not represented in the same way as others.

Other critics of the plan met outside of the district office before the meeting to share ideas about the impact the current plan could have on students and educators. Those gathered outside included members of Truth in Education and Veterans Against CRT.

Organization leaders invited others to come out and speak in the office parking lot, and one speaker shared his experience with problems caused by general racial biases and accusations of hate.

“If we want to solve this problem, it is not solved by Critical Race Theory,” he said. “To sit here and accuse people and make blanket statements that make no sense …. If we want to change this present to create this better county, then we must be accountable.”

Board of Education
Parents and residents in opposition to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan invited their own speakers to talk to those gathered outside of the district office before the start of the meeting on Tuesday, July 20. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

‘Respect and dignity’

Many residents inside of the meeting disagreed with the criticisms, arguing that DEI is meant only to help support students and make families in Forsyth feel included in the FCS community.

Amelia Tang, a student at Denmark High School, said she spoke to teachers and students at her school about what they thought of the DEI plan. She shared with the board some of the feelings they all shared with her, all of them in favor of the DEI plan and what it offers to the school.

Later in the meeting, recent West Forsyth High School graduate Jaella Mac Au said the DEI plan offers an opportunity for everyone at FCS to grow and better understand their peers.

“The DEI plan is something so simple, yet we have turned it into something else completely,” Mac Au said. “[It is] offering something we should all strive to do — to treat every single person we encounter with respect and dignity no matter who they are and what they believe in.”

As each speaker came and went, sharing thoughts with the board, tensions in the crowded conference room grew.

Guests started to get louder with applause, laughter or grunts of disagreement as other residents tried to use the three-minute limit to speak, and board chairwoman Kristin Morrissey threatened more than once to stop the meeting because of the interruptions.

Several speakers noted the rising anger, hate and frustrations generated both in and outside of the district office over the last three months. The issue of DEI and how it should be implemented in Forsyth’s schools has been one of few topics dividing community members to two opposite extremes.

Knowing this, some used their time at the podium to suggest another solution — uniting.

Board of Education
Jaella Mac Au was one of many who spoke in support of the DEI plan at the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, July 20.

The end goal

Sophia Zhao, an FCS student, was one of the first at the meeting to admit there are issues surrounding the DEI plan that both sides of the aisle can agree on, and while she supports the plan, she said it also needs some revision.

At the same time, she said they need a plan in place to help students in the county like her who continue to face racism and discrimination at school.

“When I was younger, I was made fun of for having ‘Asian eyes,’ and people would make jokes like, ‘Can you even see with those?’ or they would use their fingers to pull their eyelids apart and talk with exaggerated accents and pretend that they were eating dogs,” Zhao said. “I was bullied for being Chinese.”

Todd Armistead mostly disagrees with the plan, likening it to CRT and Marxism, but at the same time, he agrees with Zhao on some level. He believes students should not have to feel like they do not belong in their school.

“Understanding that there will always be cliques and groups that do not really interact, there should never be hate or bullying or levels of pressure to succeed that burden kids beyond what they can handle,” Armistead said. “Our students must feel safe to confront life and grow so they can hopefully flourish and reach their dreams.”

Knowing that they can agree on the end goal, Armistead said they simply need to find a way outside of politics to find a solution “that will unify this community.”

Michael Valdes, a parent in the county, agreed that the issue has become too divided and that they should all come together in an open dialogue. To do this, he told the board they need to take charge and lead an environment where residents can speak openly instead of “talking at each other.”

At the end of the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden said they would do exactly that.

Board of Education
The Forsyth County Board of Education office. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

‘Three common threads’

Before guests left the meeting Tuesday, Bearden reminded community members that he and the board members have listened to all of their feedback about the DEI plan over the last few months and will take it all into account going forward.

They plan to invite residents, along with students, staff and other stakeholders, to take part in discussions surrounding their updated 2022-27 strategic plan in the fall, which includes the DEI plan and any possible revisions.

Through listening to concerned residents over the past three months, reading emails and talking on the phone, Bearden said he has noticed “three common threads” in all of the feedback and conversations.

He laid out these commonalities in an impassioned speech to the crowd.

The first thread is that everyone wants FCS to remain as a great district for kids and educators alike. He mentioned Forsyth’s graduation rate — 96% — which continues to increase each year. He also pointed to the amazing teachers, high-performing students and quality education that makes FCS what it is.

“The other thing I think we can all agree upon, I think every single person in this room wants every student, all 52,000 of them, to receive a quality education,” Bearden said. “Where we might disagree — and I think that’s OK; good people sometimes disagree — is how we get there.”

Bearden said they will all figure out the solution as a community, coming together to discuss and compromise in the district’s strategic plan.

The last thread he saw in residents’ feedback was that they all want students to stay safe at school.

“We want all students — all students — to be respected and valued,” Bearden said. “We want all students to be respectful of one another and the adults that serve them. We want all students and all families to feel a sense of belonging. It doesn’t matter what side you are on with this DEI and CRT issue. Those themes have surfaced throughout the last three months.”

By noticing these common themes, Bearden realized that the community agrees on much more than they believe. He believes that this creates an opportunity for all of them to come together and a path to these goals that they can all agree on.

“Let’s come together, and let’s build on that because, as some of you have said tonight, and who could disagree with it, our students deserve us to do that,” Bearden said. “All 52,000 of them deserve us to come together as a community and work this out — and do it without hatred, without anger, do it without animosity. Do it with love and respect.”

Bearden said he is confident that they all can work together and create a plan for the next five years that will serve FCS and its students well.

What’s next

Aside from Bearden’s speech, Morrissey also read a statement to the crowd, letting everyone know that the DEI portion of the district’s website has been updated to include past and future work on the plan.

Guests can view the updated information at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us/dei.

The board will begin holding meetings on the new strategic plan in the fall, and as those meetings come up, the board will share those dates and times with community members and other stakeholders.

“We are committed to listening, learning and leading so all of our students and their families are welcome, included and connected in the FCS family,” Morrissey said.