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Race, Religion & Social Justice

Diversity assembly leads to controversy in Cache County School District

Adults and children hold signs with messages like "Protect BIPOC and LGBTQ Students" and "I will not learn your hate."
Courtesy Katy Shoemaker
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Parents and students gather outside the Cache County School District board meeting Thursday night to show support for conversations about race.

After a student showed up to school in Black face and another in a Klansman costume this past Halloween, Sky View High School principal Michael Monson decided it was time to address diversity and inclusion at the Cache County school.

He brought in a motivational speaker, Dr. Jacqueline Thompson, to talk about these issues in an assembly on Nov. 23. Thompson was recently named an assistant superintendent of Davis School District to address diversity and equity issues there.

Monson said Thompson began the assembly by welcoming students in different languages. He said she talked to students about getting to know and better understand each other.

As a part of her presentation, she also shared a country music video titled “400 Years.” It features images of slavery, the civil rights movement and police brutality.

Monson said the video was created by another Utah school administrator, Greg Miller, the head of Layton Christian Academy.

He said Miller wrote the song after his basketball team went into a rural town in Utah and some of the players were called racial slurs. A large point of the video is to stop using privilege “just to look away.”

Shortly after the assembly, Monson began to receive phone calls and emails from concerned parents in the district about the video. They equated the message of white privilege to the controversial Critical Race Theory being debated across the country

Monson said he’d seen the video prior to the presentation but wasn’t aware it was going to be in the assembly. He sent out an apology Monday.

“I think one of the concerns parents had was that they weren't made aware that the video would be shown,” Monson said. “My apology actually goes to them because our goal as a school is never to become a political lightning rod or create this whole situation of where people are divided.”

He said his goal is to help kids become good people. Monson said they’ll keep having conversations about these issues because it’s a part of a student's education.

“It's part of our history and it's part of what we teach in the schools, is that there has been oppression,” Monson said. “So as an educator, yeah, I believe we want to talk about these things. But I also always want to be respectful to families and parents and their community and respect their values.”

According to the school’s website, Sky View’s population is 87% white, Hispanic students make up 10% of the student body and 1% are African American.

Kathleen Christy is a retired equity director for the Salt Lake City School District. She said it’s become difficult for educators to have these conversations about diversity and inclusion because of the debate around critical race theory.

CRT is not being taught in schools, but it has become what some educators have called a ‘boogeyman’ in public education. Utah republican lawmakers passed a resolution earlier this year banning the practice of teaching the theory in schools.

“We have so many brilliant educators who are committed and passionate about diversity education and about equity and social justice,” Christy said. “They're afraid because they do something like this, [show] a very innocent video [or] mention a word that they're saying now that you can't say in relationship to diversity, equity or inclusion. There are certain words that are just now taboo. Why are they taboo?”

She said a way to combat this is to open the door to parents to learn alongside students about these issues.

These people don't know what it involves,” Christy said. “I would suggest that schools and educators can offer forums, offer meetings where parents can come in and have these discussions. They have to learn too, just as we're teaching kids. I think many in our community have not paid attention to that diversity in our communities.”

Divided parents’ response 

At a school board meeting Thursday night, Cache County School District superintendent Steven Norton quoted the legislative resolution, H.R. 901, and emphasised that it “clearly states that educating students on history, civil rights, racism and the negative impacts that racism has had throughout history is necessary.”

He said as a school board, they couldn’t agree more.

Some parents took issue with the portrayal of police officers in the video and accused educators of attempting to insert Critical Race Theory into the curriculum. One tearful parent, Heather Moller, said her daughter felt ashamed about being white after watching the music video.

But some students from Sky View High spoke to district leaders about wanting to learn more about diversity and equity in school.

Alean Hunt, mother of six, said her children have experienced several instances of racism at school. Those ranged from being called the N-word to having a Confederate flag at a school basketball game.

“Their hair has been touched, [been] played with, objects placed in it all without their consent, while in class supposedly supervised by teachers,” she said. “My kids had to be slaves and slave owners to celebrate Black History Month in school. White privilege means that your life has not been made more difficult because of your skin color. Full stop.”

Mario Mathis spoke about the connection to a recent case in the Davis School District where 10-year-old Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor died by suicide after being bullying by her peers for being Black.

Mathis said he’s spoken at several school districts about racism and that it’s a chronic problem Utah schools are facing.

“You should be disappointed, another child — a white child — wore Black face,” Mathis said. “... This is a reflection of the parenting that goes on around here.”

District members closed public comment shortly after an hour and continued with the regular school board agenda.

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