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Curriculum On Race And Gender Issues In School Is At The Center Of Utah Board Of Education Member Controversy

Photo of the Utah State Board of Education building
Rocio Hernandez
Natalie Cline is serving her first term as a member of the Utah State Board of Education. She was elected in November.

A petition has been circulating online calling for the removal of a Utah State Board of Education member Natalie Cline. As of Tuesday afternoon, nearly 6,000 people signed the petition since it launched Sunday.

“Ms. Cline promotes discriminatory and unethical rhetoric to the public and fights to promote her rhetoric within District 11’s School Board of Education,” the petition states, linking to Facebook posts from the board member.

In Facebook posts, Cline has spoken out against anti-bias training in schools and lessons stemming from critical race theory, a framework for identifying how inequality is maintained and perpetuated against traditionally marginalized groups. She said teachers who participated in a Utah Pride Center conference were attempting to “indoctrinate” children and called books featuring LGBTQ characters innappropriate.

She also urged people to lobby other board members against a resolution denouncing racism in Utah schools, which the board later adopted.

“This ideology is about division and not unity,” she wrote. “It seeks to create a narrative of oppressor and oppressed to stir up resentment and hate. It is literally the opposite of what we should be using in our schools or our education system.”

Cline’s message around keeping conversations about things like race, gender and sexuality out of schools is not a new one, said University of Utah education professor William Smith. He said it’s been a common tactic for those who don't want to deal with issues around social justice, whether done consciously or not.

And the idea that talking more about inequality perpetuates the problem is both ignorant and harmful, he said.

“If you have an environmental toxic waste and you call attention to that, that's not being divisive,” Smith said. “You're trying to focus on the issue and you want to help heal people and prevent further damage. So I think it's just insane for someone to take a very similar stance with racism, anti-queerness. It does not increase division.”

And while there is not necessarily an ideal place to have discussions around race, gender or sexuality, Smith said schools become increasingly important when the conversations aren’t happening elsewhere.

“If [parents are] having these conversations in their home about anti-racism or about LGBTQ topics, that's great,” said Leah Smith, a 7th grade English teacher at Pleasant Grove Junior High. “And if their student hears something at school that the parent doesn't agree with, then of course they can have that conversation with their students. But I think the fear is that their student is hearing about these things the parent doesn't want them to know about.”

Smith said it’s been frustrating to see how little trust parents have in teachers covering what they consider controversial topics. She said she’s been trying to develop a curriculum around anti-racism, which she said has been mostly well-received, but she has had more pushback when it comes to LGBTQ issues.

But she said for a student to hear that books about someone who is gay or transgender is inappropriate isn’t just damaging to her many LGBTQ students — who are at greater risk for suicide than their peers largely because of hostility and bullying — it’s bad for everyone.

“It's not about preserving innocence or I'm not trying to corrupt people's children in my classroom,” she said. “I'm trying to make sure they have an open mind and are able to engage with people who think differently than they do.”

In a statement, board leadership said it has no legal authority to remove or maintain a member’s seat, but it “supports and welcomes the continued dialogue regarding civic engagement and the election process.” The only way someone can be removed is if they resign or are impeached.

Cline did not respond to requests for comments. In a Facebook post Sunday, she said she is a target of the mob and urged people to write to school board members “in support of parents’ rights to know and choose what is okay for their child to be taught in their classrooms.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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