Isle of Wight County Schools bans teaching on ‘systemic racism’

Published 9:07 am Friday, March 10, 2023

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Isle of Wight County educators are now barred from teaching students about “systemic racism,” per a 3-2 School Board vote on March 9.

The vote changed the language of School Board Policy INB, which deals with teaching controversial issues. The adopted changes now explicitly assert “there is no systemic racism or bigotry perpetuated by the United States or any governmental entity.”

The assertion is one of seven principles teachers are now mandated to follow when instructing students. The other six state:

  • Parents have the sole responsibility for guiding their children’s views on controversial topics.
  • Life should be viewed without bias or discrimination toward any individual or group based on their characteristics or identities.
  • No one is inherently a victim or oppressed, consciously or unconsciously, due to their race, skin color, gender, religion, national origin sex, medical condition, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status or disability.
  • A person’s value, success and moral character are not determined by their race, ethnicity or sex.
  • Socioeconomic or citizenship status does not make a person superior or inferior to others.
  • Employees of Isle of Wight County Schools shall not endorse any political party, candidate or ideology in the performance of their duties.

The policy revision, put forward by board member Jason Maresh, is the latest iteration of efforts by the board’s new conservative majority to eliminate what they’ve called “divisive” content from Isle of Wight County Schools’ curriculum. 

“I campaigned in large part for the premise behind this policy, it’s no secret, and I was elected by 67% of voters in my district,” Maresh said. “In Virginia, parents get a voice in how and what their children are exposed to.”

The vote is among the latest to split along racial lines. Denise Tynes and Michael Cunningham, the board’s two Black members, each opposed the policy change.

The seven principles are modeled off language in Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order No. 1, which mandated an end to “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory” in public schools. Critical Race Theory argues American laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minorities.

Maresh and board member Mark Wooster had each made “divisive” materials a campaign issue when running for their seats last year. Maresh, prior to taking office, would frequently use the public comment period at School Board meetings to argue that Isle of Wight County Schools was “indoctrinating” students with tenets of Critical Race Theory through equity initiatives and social justice-themed books. Board Chairman John Collick also made Critical Race Theory a campaign issue when he ran for his seat in 2021.

Wooster had introduced an earlier version of the policy change in December. At the time, he proposed expanding Isle of Wight County Schools’ policy on “sexually explicit” materials to include a ban on anything deemed “inherently divisive.” 

Wooster’s original proposal, which had taken language verbatim from Youngkin’s order, drew fierce opposition in January from students and teachers who condemned the move as “censorship.” Speakers returned on March 9 to oppose the latest iteration during an hour-plus public comment period.

Matthew Ployd, a Smithfield High School history teacher, called the listed seven principles a “manifesto” rather than a policy.

“The only ones pushing a political agenda here in Isle of Wight are you, the board,” Ployd said.

Asserting in a policy that there is no systemic racism in the United States “doesn’t make it a fact,” said Windsor High School history teacher Maggie Halstead, who contended the policy would result in students receiving a “narrow-minded and incomplete view on the world.”

Jasmine Johnson, a Smithfield High School junior, told the board that with the policy in place, she would “no longer be proud” but “ashamed” to attend Isle of Wight County Schools.

None of the nine speakers who referenced Policy INB during the comment period reserved for agenda items said they supported the change. Tynes and Cunningham each cited the opposition for voting against the change.

“I heard them, I listened. … I will continue to advocate for them,” Tynes said.