LACONIA — When Jim Thompson, who is 83, ponders Critical Race Theory, his thoughts turn to the impact it might have on his grandchildren and great grandchildren, and the more-divided world it might create if racism is countered with racism.
The Laconia resident worries that through diversity and inclusion training for teachers, and materials for parents, concepts are filtering down to the youngest kids, who are just trying to make sense of the world and make friends, and not focus on differences.
He holds page one of a parent guide shared on the school district’s website this April, that was removed in June, entitled, “Talking to White Kids about Privilege.” It depicts a light-skinned girl and a dark-skinned boy riding bikes, with the text: “You can run and play with your friends without someone assuming you are ‘making trouble.’ Sometimes, people assume kids of color are doing something wrong, just because of the color of their skin. How can we speak up for kids of color?”
Children should not be encouraged to judge anyone based on their skin color, say Thompson and his wife, Dee, who is part Mexican-American.
“The message to white kids is, ‘You’re a privileged class,’” said Thompson, who attended elementary school in Alabama, and a mostly-Black high school in Ohio, and said he always had friends of different races.
“We want our children and grandchildren to live in the America we have enjoyed, with freedom,” Dee Thompson said.
Critical race theory remains a contentious and politicized topic nationwide, including in communities in the Lakes Region. Critics worry that if it sets the framework for training on race, diversity and inclusion, it will heighten tensions between racial and ethnic groups, create a mindset of victims and oppressors, and engender a view of society that further splits people into opposing groups.
Worries over the content of training for teachers and students continue to erupt at Laconia School Board meetings, resulting in an impasse in communication and understanding between school board members and the superintendent, and a group of angry residents who want transparency and detailed answers about what is and is not being taught.
At the end of June, Governor Chirs Sununu signed HB2 into law, making it illegal for schools to teach that one group of people is inherently superior or inferior to another group, or inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously. HB2 encourages the discussion of racism in history and society, which includes discussion of the discrimination that groups have faced in housing, access to health care, law enforcement, employment and other areas of life.
“We have disparities that are racial in nature. True history needs to be taught,” said James McKim, president of the Manchester, NH branch of the NAACP. “Teaching history is not to make us comfortable. It’s to make us learn,” so the past doesn’t keep repeating.
“CRT teaches that everyone is not equal. The original definition is that race play a part in how people are treated, and have been treated throughout history,” said McKim. “The concern that CRT is being taught in school is fear-mongering,” which distracts from the realities of race in America. “We need to have these discussions. Otherwise, we’re not going to improve our society.”
Superintendent Steve Tucker said last week that nothing in teacher training or what kids are learning in Laconia schools violates the state’s new divisive concepts law. Critical Race theory is not part of teacher training or school curriculum, he said. The “Curious Parenting” guide for parents with statements about white privilege was mistakenly posted and taken down after it was shared online and was reported to be causing controversy, Tucker said. He said he never received any phone calls from parents about it.
Diversity and inclusion, and the best ways to encourage and teach those values and practices, are up to individual school districts, which are tasked with implementing policies that prevent discrimination against any group or individual based on race, color, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, religion or disability or age.
Despite Tucker’s assurances, some residents worry that destructive messages linger, and say there hasn’t been enough disclosure of what’s actually happening in schools. A list of recommended readings about race and the history and experience of racism in America posted on the school district’s website, and includes national bestsellers by Ibram X. Kendi, “How to be an Anti-Racist” and “Stamped from the Beginning.” Kendi has publicly commented that the only way to truly counteract racism against Blacks is with racism against Whites – statements which have made critics worry about the messages children are receiving, and whether the views presented in schools will unify or polarize them according to skin color.
“I feel racism is not there in elementary school. It’s something that is learned. When we continue to use the word ‘race,’ we continue to divide ourselves,” said Sally Shrader, who taught math for 33 years in Freeport, New York, one of Long Island’s most diverse school districts, before retiring to Laconia.
“There is only one race, the human race,” said Schrader, who created bumper stickers with that message.
Commenting on materials that were removed from the school website, and the slides used in teacher training on January 21, 2021 in Laconia, Schrader said, “I’m concerned that it would be more divisive than it would unify. They’re grouping people into groups. That’s where it needs to stop.”
She thinks of her former student, Damien Corrente, a pre-med student, who was shot five times in the head in an incident of gang rivalry, as a result of enmity and revenge stoked between groups. Corrente was not a gang member.
“Just accepting people. Let’s start seeing the human and not dividing the being. We need to see the whole picture of who we are,” Schrader said. “We have more in common than we have that’s different.”
“Dividing people up is the issue,” said Douglas Teegarden, a Laconia man who has spoken at Laconia School Board Meetings, often with accusations and irate demands for answers. Teegarden said teachings on “white privilege” and the need to atone for racist sins of past generations keep him awake at night. He said that highlighting divisions by race, even if there are disturbing differences in experience between people of different races, will only be destructive to society and to children’s self-esteem, motivation and hopes for the future.
“It doesn’t teach self-esteem, it teaches degradation and guilt,” said Teegarden. “One kid might feel, I’ve got privilege, I’m going to use it. Another kid might feel, I’m white, I’m such a terrible person. What are we telling the black kids, if you’re telling the white kids they’re better off? You’re telling the black kids that they’re underprivileged. You’re starting them out in a hole two feet below. It implies that kids are being dealt a disservice because they’re being born a wrong color. I’ve never seen something so outright evil,” said Teegarden. “’Inclusive means, ‘I don’t care who you are, come over and sit with me.’”
Teegarden said that according to his own reading, critical race theory concepts were part of the diversity and inclusion that Laconia’s teachers received on January 21. The training was adopted without school board knowledge or input, which is not required by law.
Superintendent Tucker said the training focused on prompting teachers to think empathetically about others who are different from themselves, to put themselves in the position of people who belong to other races and ethnicities they may not have encountered while growing up, attending school or working. New Hamsphire’s population is roughly 90% white, and there’s a demographic shift to more students of color, especially in cities, recent studies have shown.
Tucker said “It’s not the intent to teach that white kids are privileged. The intent was to help someone see what the world is like through a Black child’s eyes. When you throw that inflammatory term out (critical race theory) and use it in unhelpful ways, it’s difficult to make sense” of what’s happening. “We’re not teaching CRT. I don’t feel any answer I give is going to be sufficient.”
McKim said he’s received calls from school districts where similar concerns have come forward at school board meetings. “Have I heard complaints about the content of diversity concepts and complaints about CRT being taught in schools? Yes. However, I have found none of those complaints to be well founded,” said McKim.
In Laconia, worried residents have requested a public forum explaining what is and is not part of public education on diversity and inclusion, but none has been held.
“I feel like we’ve shared the information on that,” said Tucker “I feel like we’ve tried to talk to people who raised concerns about the training. When I talked about the purpose of (the school district’s) Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, the response was, ‘I’m a liar.”
Some residents worry that the resources posted by Office of School Wellness materials indicate a detrimental approach.
This spring, a Laconia fourth grader brought a handout on white privilege home to White and Black parents, who were appalled by the message, and worried that it would cause division within their family, according to John Sanborn and Nancy McKeen, who live in Gilford. They said they attend Laconia School Board meetings because they are concerned about what their nieces, nephews and grandchildren might be learning in city schools.
One problem, critics say, is that open public comment at school board meetings is limited to three minutes per person and cannot include questions. Under state law, school boards can choose to allow or disallow questions from the public during board meetings, but residents are free to ask questions after the meeting, or email or call board members or the superintendent directly.
Tucker said parents with concerns should speak to their children about what they’re learning, and contact the teacher or principal with their concerns.
Schrader, the retired math teacher, said she would like to see a curriculum and an overall approach that promotes inclusion, respect and acceptance, while recognizing differences between people. She holds up a cell phone photo sent to her from a friend, a photo of two White parents listening to the sound of their deceased son’s heart beating in the chest of a smiling Black man, who received the transplanted organ.
“In the 1700s, race was an attempt to categorize people by their physical differences,” said Schrader. “We are so much more alike than we are different. That’s what needs to be said.”
Laconia School Board meetings are held the first and third Tuesday of the month. The next one is tonight at 6:30-8 p.m. at the Laconia High School auditorium.