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What Forsyth County residents had to say about DEI ahead of strategic plan discussions
District pauses staff diversity training for 2021-22 year
Board of Education
The Forsyth County Board of Education and Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden sits in front of a meeting room filled with community members on Tuesday, May 18, when Forsyth County first started to show concern or support for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

More than 20 students and residents stepped up to the podium at the Forsyth County Board of Education’s meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 17, to share thoughts on the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan.  

The evening marked the fourth meeting since May where residents have attended and signed up to speak during public comments to show either support or opposition for the DEI plan, which is part of the district’s five-year strategic plan.  

As it becomes time to discuss a new strategic plan for the next five years, Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden and the board members have announced in recent weeks that they will take all the community’s feedback into account when making any possible changes to the DEI plan or staff training materials.  

They plan to also invite parents, students and other stakeholders to take part in strategic plan discussions this fall as they have in previous years.  

Many of the speakers at Tuesday’s meeting asked the board members to reflect on what might be best for the community, parents and students going forward.  

Learning history  

Those in support of the plan mentioned many of the same benefits DEI could bring to the schools and students that they have in past meetings.   

Students shared that staff training and a culture of DEI could help in making them feel safe and respected in school, and others pointed to research which shows all students learn more effectively through a diverse school staff.  

Latresha Jester, a Forsyth County Schools parent, reminded the board that many of the parents and students also wish for a more comprehensive history curriculum to address the full history of minority and LGBTQ populations in the U.S. and in Forsyth County.  

“There are people in Forsyth who will roll their eyes at the mention of what happened to the Black residents in 1912,” Jester said. “There are people that will balk when you mention the Hosea Williams marches and Oprah coming here in 1987, but here we are in 2021 having a discussion about does diversity, equity and inclusion make sense in our diverse schools.”  

Through learning this history, she hopes communities can move on from issues they seem to see repeatedly and learn from past mistakes and injustices.  

Before the beginning of the debate on DEI in schools, district leaders discussed plans to introduce an age-appropriate curriculum to eighth grade Georgia Studies courses, which would address Forsyth County history.   

Through planning, leaders worked with the Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County and other local organizations to create videos and educational resources from different parts of the county to accompany the new curriculum, which would tackle information about areas such as Lake Lanier, Ga. 400, Cumming Square and the county’s history with race.  

In January, leaders said this curriculum was set to begin this month with the beginning of the new school year, but it has since been pushed back. Due to the pandemic, district leaders said they were unable to gather all the educational resources necessary to begin the new curriculum.  

Traci Priego
Traci Priego speaks to the Forsyth County Board of Education at their meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 17.

The decision to delay training 

Many supporters at the meeting and in recent weeks have pointed to small changes or delays such as this as a sign that the board may be backing out on important aspects of the plan.  

These worries were only heightened when the district announced on its website that staff diversity training has been paused for the 2021-22 year.  

One resident, Traci Preigo, asked the board during the meeting to open a dialogue with the community about any changes to quench worries and answer questions they may have.  

Bearden and the board members have stated several times in recent months that they stick by the decision to implement a plan that will work to make sure each FCS student feels respected, valued and safe.  

The two voluntary trainings that have been paused, Diversity 101 and Diversity 201, have been one of the largest subjects of criticism from the DEI plan over the past few months, with some residents saying the trainings are simply too vague while others believe they promote 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. The debate surrounding DEI in Forsyth County first took hold after debates on CRT began throughout other parts of the nation earlier this year.  

Experts have since shared that CRT is usually only taught in higher education.  

FCS leaders and Board of Education members have continued to share the statement originally announced in May that the district “does not and will not” teach CRT within its schools.  

Opposition to DEI  

Despite this statement, many of those who continue to speak in opposition of the DEI plan in schools continue to refer to it as CRT as they believe it promotes the theory.  

Synthea Meskimen referred to DEI and CRT at Tuesday’s meeting as “communist indoctrination.”  

She, like some other residents over the last few months, expressed that the plan simply does not have Christian and conservative values in mind.  

“Remember, parents are responsible for the social and emotional development of their child,” Meskimen said. “Not you, not educators and certainly not government. The taxpayers and parents who hear my message agree.”  

Sharon Briggs, another resident, shared this same sentiment with the board.  

“I’m hearing the same message over and over: they want the teaching of values left to the family. They want educators to teach the basic academic subjects,” Briggs said.  

They are just two of the many residents who have agreed that the school district should stick to a basic curriculum in areas such as English, math, science and social studies.  

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

‘They need somebody’  

Students who have shared their experiences with discrimination in the school system, on the other hand, said that it is important for both students and staff members to learn more about those they share classrooms with and how to recognize and celebrate differences in religions, cultures and more while being respectful.  

Aryani Duppada, a current FCS student, spoke to the board for the third time on Tuesday. Over the past months, she has shared just some of her experiences with racism in the school system, and she said she doesn’t feel heard by the board or community parents.  

“You won’t ever know what it’s like to hear kids shouting slurs in the hallway that directly affect you,” Duppada said. “You’ll never know the pain you feel when teachers just ignore those hurtful words.”  

Bill Liming said he has been teaching in Forsyth County for six years, and he told the board he also hears offensive racist, transphobic and misogynistic statements not only from students, but also from other teachers.   

“I have children sit in my room who they don’t feel like they fit in, and they need somebody,” Liming said. “I hope for some of them, I’ve been that.”  

Anti-bullying  

Theresa Shen, a parent in the county, has attended each board meeting since May, often speaking against the plan as she said it works to separate students within the school system.  

After hearing these stories from Liming and several students, she said this type of harassment and bullying unfortunately happens with all students regardless of race or sexual orientation.  

She encouraged the board to look further at its anti-bullying policies and how they can be better implemented.  

Shen also pointed out that many have also taken to social media to criticize and personally attack those who have spoken at the board meetings in recent months. She herself has experienced this criticism and asked that they each learn to stay civil during the DEI debate.  

“I’m not a racist. I’m not homophobic. I’m not transphobic, xenophobic, misogynistic, nor a lunatic,” Shen said. “I’m a mom, passionate about education. I’m just a citizen who cares about the future of our republic.”

What’s next  

After public comments were over on Tuesday, the board continued with the business portion of the meeting. None of the board members nor Bearden addressed the comments or gave any other statements.  

The board will be continuing conversations about its upcoming five-year strategic plan in the coming weeks. District leaders will inform community members and stakeholders when dates are set for any future meetings or discussions.  

For more information about DEI, visit the district’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us/dei.