Public Comment Sessions Tomorrow at JBHS and Virtual Session on Wednesday

The search for a new superintendent for the Easton, Redding and Region 9 school districts moves forward with public comment sessions this week as contentious debates surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) continue to unfold on local social media.

Much of the DEI debate has centered around critical race theory (CRT), which isn’t taught in any of the ER9 schools. A small group of residents who mistakenly believe it is part of the ER9 curriculum want the district’s next superintendent to disavow the theory and pledge not to advocate for it or other “social justice views.”

This group also wants voters to decide who will replace former Superintendent Dr. Rydell Harrison, which would be a significant departure from the usual search process. Harrison’s July 19 resignation was attributed in part to the sustained and targeted attacks against him, critical race theory and DEI initiatives.

The Debate Over CRT

Although critical race theory has been featured prominently on yard signs and in political mailers throughout the districts, the current debates have less to do with the actual theory— which very few people outside of academia have read—and more to do with different underlying assumptions about American history and society, especially in relation to racism.

For months, anti-diversity education activists from Easton and Redding blanketed Harrison and school board members with emails and freedom of information requests. Two anti-diversity education activist groups sent five mailers to Easton and Redding households over the course of the 2020-21 school year denouncing critical race theory and diversity education, and in one case, targeting Dr. Harrison for a Facebook post to his circle of friends.

The activists have claimed without evidence that the district’s DEI survey is the groundwork for the integration of a critical race theory that will teach children that “America is a fatally flawed racist nation.” Dana Benson, who founded a conservative LLC to influence local school policies, contends the goal of the survey is to find the hidden prejudice and “systemic bias” that critical race theory asserts “must exist” in our communities.

In response to these claims, school board members have repeatedly and publicly asserted that the purpose of the survey is to collect anonymous data and facts from students who choose to participate with parental consent. They say the survey will allow teachers and staff to create a more inclusive learning environment for all students.

Mary Lee Pampel, a Region 9 board member and U.S. history teacher, acknowledges that the history of the United States is less than perfect, but says the survey was not meant to push critical race theory. “The work of the DEI survey was simply to help students succeed in school,” she said. “It was a way to figure what circumstances students are facing and how we can help them.”

Moving Forward

After Dr. Harrison’s resignation garnered national attention from media outlets like the New York Post and NBC News, First Selectman David Bindelglass took to Facebook to urge Eastonites to “reject the politics of division and to stay focused on the facts and students.”

Region 9 school board member Karen O’Brien described the tactics of anti-DEI groups as “political bullying,” and emphasized that “the DEI survey is done.” “I wish we could just move on to more important things, move off from people saying there is some underlying current of trying to sneak CRT into everything,” O’Brien said.

Christopher Hocker, a member of the Redding Board of Education, said he refuses to participate in a politicized search for a new superintendent.

“The decision of hiring the next superintendent should not and must not be made to revolve around a single set of issues,” said Hocker, who sits on the Personnel Search Committee that will find Harrison’s replacement. “It is a far more complex and important decision to be made than to politicize it one way or the other.”

The public can comment on the superintendent search Monday, July 26 at sessions set for 10 a.m., 4 p.m., and 7 p.m. in the Learning Commons at Joel Barlow High School, 100 Black Rock Turnpike in Redding. School protocol on mask-wearing will apply and will be posted at the front entrance.

On Wednesday, July 28, Dr. Joseph Erardi, the search consultant working with the boards of education, will also facilitate a 7 p.m. community forum on Zoom to gather information from attendees which will then be shared with the hiring committee.

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