Local parents, organizations and state political leaders gathered in downtown Cumming on Saturday, Oct. 9, to discuss upcoming plans to push for legislation to end critical race theory in schools and encourage school board members to drop Social and Emotional Learning from local curriculums.
The press conference was organized by Truth in Education and Georgia Parents Know BEST, or Building Education for Students Together, which are both nonprofits dedicated to protecting the rights of parents and fighting against Critical Race Theory, or CRT, in schools.
Leaders from both organizations spoke alongside state Reps. Sheri Gilligan, R-Cumming, and Brad Thomas, R-Holly Springs, along with state Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Gwinnett.
What they had to say about SEL and CRT
Rhonda Thomas, president of Truth in Education, began the conference by explaining to parents and community members in the small crowd gathered why she believes SEL is harmful to families.
Much like many parents have shared at recent Forsyth County Board of Education meetings, Thomas said teachers in K-12 schools should be teaching core subjects such as English, math and science, “but that’s not what’s happening in our schools.”
Thomas said the school districts in Forsyth and in neighboring counties have begun to move away from academics in favor of topics that focus on emotion and promote certain beliefs.
“No one has the authority to raise our children besides us,” Thomas said. “The government is not supposed to parent our child.”
Some parents have also opposed the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, referring to it as CRT, a scholarly body of work that theorizes different aspects of American life and societal systems are based in discriminatory practices.
Cindy Martin, a mother of four in Forsyth County, said she had never been actively involved in politics, but when she heard about the DEI plan, she had to step in.
“There was a time when we sent our kids to school, we didn’t have to worry about what they were being taught because we knew that the teachers taught the academics and we, the parents, taught the values and the morals and the beliefs that we hold dear,” Martin said. “And that is not the case anymore.”
Gilligan said educators in Forsyth County teach students that they are victims or oppressors based on their skin color, and she said it is taught “under the guise of tolerance and diversity.”
Either through staff trainings or student curriculum, Gilligan said teachers should be able to focus strictly on academics.
“We are the teacher’s best ally here because we want them to be able to focus on what they were trained to do and that is to educate our children,” Gilligan said. “Let them be the teachers that they were trained and educated and that they have the burning heart’s desire to do and to be.”
NSBA’s letter to the Biden administration
Parents and community members have shared similar thoughts at BOE meetings in Forsyth in the last five months, speaking directly to board members to encourage them to drop the DEI plan and SEL programs.
But students and other supporters have also come out to the meetings, letting board members know they would like the plan to stay in place — with some meetings becoming tense as the two opposing sides clashed.
At the same time, community members in Gwinnett, Cherokee, Cobb and other metro Atlanta counties have also been heading out to their county’s BOE meetings.
In a letter sent to President Joe Biden’s administration late in September, the National School Boards Association wrote that board members and school staff members across the nation are currently faced with “a growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation,” as these debates continue.
Through the letter, the NSBA asked for federal law enforcement to aid in keeping school district officials safe.
The NSBA specifically points out Georgia in the letter as one state where BOE meetings have been disrupted “because of local directives for mask coverings to protect students and educators from COVID-19.”
Speakers at the press conference Saturday said the letter refers to a Gwinnett BOE meeting five months ago where nearly 100 community members refused to wear face masks as required or leave the meeting.
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Their reaction to the NSBA letter
Each of the state leaders and local parents at the conference agreed that the NSBA’s letter went too far in its language describing the parents who have protested against COVID-19 measures and CRT.
Lara Zorc, director of BEST, said the letter “crossed a line,” as she believes the organization is trying to further divide communities.
“We are disgusted …. over the blatant attacks on parental rights that I’m seeing right now,” Zorc said during the conference.
She travels across states frequently to take part in campaigns, and she said she has mainly heard from parents who tell their board members that if they do not change their policies, then they will vote them out of office.
“They are seeing that as a political threat,” Zorc said. “It’s not a personal threat. It is a promise from these parents that they are not going to forget what’s going on.”
Calls to action
The speakers on Saturday asked for those in attendance, either in-person or virtually, to become more involved in their communities and school district.
Thomas said they will continue to attend BOE meetings to put pressure on members to make a change to the current policy, and she encouraged anyone willing to run for the board themselves to do so.
“If you are not feeling equipped …. find someone that is,” Thomas said. “Make sure that person is bold, is strong and has the same value system that we’re looking for to represent us in our school board. This is very important. This is our future.”
Gilligan also suggested that Forsyth County community members vote against the upcoming Educational Local Option Sales Tax referendum, which will be on the ballot during local elections on Nov. 2.
The 1% sales tax is placed on anyone who purchases items in Forsyth County, regardless of where they live or work. E-SPLOST VI would be a continuation of the sales tax, which has been in place for many years.
“Maybe just maybe you want to let the school board know that you’re not satisfied,” Gilligan said. “Maybe just maybe, you’ll join me in clicking ‘no’ on that E-SPLOST referendum on Nov. 2.”
Statement from FCS
In an emailed statement to the Forsyth County News, FCS officials reiterated that the district “does not and will not teach, nor promote, Critical Race Theory.” Schools teach the Georgia Standards of Excellence, which must be followed by all state school districts.
“We will continue to work with our staff and students to be sure all voices are heard and respected as we build leaders for success with strong character as stated in our Learner Profile,” the statement reads.
FCS officials were not aware of the press conference Saturday when contacted for a statement.
The district is currently asking for feedback from community members on its next five-year strategic plan, which includes the DEI plan. To take part or find more information, visit the district’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us.
The DEI and SEL programs in Forsyth County
Truth in Education first formed around six months ago when parents, students and community members began attending Forsyth County BOE meetings to share opposition or support for the DEI plan.
District officials had just begun implementing the DEI plan in schools when these debates began.
Just months before, the district hired a DEI Specialist to help with the implementation, which would include further staff trainings and a unit on Forsyth County history to be added to eighth grade Georgia Studies curriculums.
The district has since pushed back plans for an added eighth grade curriculum, paused staff trainings and changed the DEI Specialist title.
The discussion about the DEI plan has led to debates about other district programs such as SEL, which many more parents have spoken out against in recent meetings.
SEL programs in FCS are meant to encourage success in life and in the classroom through different supports. These supports include counseling and advocacy specialists to help students who may be at risk and reward systems that encourage responsibility and set behavioral expectations for students at school.
These programs have been part of the district’s schools for several years.