Douglas County Schools’ proposed equity policy sparks ire, hope

School board considering first-ever equity policy

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/23/21

When the Douglas County School Board debuted a proposed policy in February focused on equity in education — a first of its kind for Colorado’s third-largest school district — directors asked …

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Douglas County Schools’ proposed equity policy sparks ire, hope

School board considering first-ever equity policy

Posted

When the Douglas County School Board debuted a proposed policy in February focused on equity in education — a first of its kind for Colorado’s third-largest school district — directors asked community members to read it and weigh in.

Public feedback so far shows the policy drew praise from some but caused a furor among many.

Roughly two-thirds of the dozens of comments submitted through March 17 expressed fierce opposition to the policy. Critics called it child abuse, leftist propaganda, political indoctrination and anti-white.

They wanted to know why the district would focus on “equity” rather than “equality,” chastised the document for framing meritocracy as a myth and questioned how the policy would affect transgender rights in Douglas County Schools. While equality focuses on ensuring each individual has the same tools and opportunities, equity takes into account barriers or needs that are unique to a person based on aspects of their identity, such as socioeconomic status or race.

Backers of the equity policy said it will improve how the district supports people of all backgrounds, and further promote diversity, inclusion and representation in the system.

One district employee wrote that the proposal made them feel safer and more included.

“And it makes me really happy for our students because they’ll benefit from all of us being more aware, more inclusive, and less accepting of bias, shame and discrimination,” said one writer.

The policy aims to ensure students and employees across identities — such as a person’s race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability — have what they need to attain or deliver education.

The proposal vows to create “a targeted system” to identify any inequities in the district in order to correct them. It says the district will not condone issues such as systemic racism, discrimination or the “myth of meritocracy.”

The district’s Equity Advisory Council, a group of staff, parents, students and community members, drafted the policy last year as anti-racist and social justice protests flared throughout nation.

Locally, past and current Black students and employees have reported numerous instances of racism or racial insensitivity in schools, and a lack of inclusion in curriculum. They also called on the district to foster better diversity among staff, particularly within leadership.

In recent school board meetings, parents of special education students have raised concerns about their children’s access to or quality of education in the district. Then this month a Douglas County mother and the ACLU sued the district because school resource officers handcuffed and charged a boy with autism.

School board President David Ray was not immediately available for comment regarding next steps for the policy. He provided a statement through a spokeswoman in response to an interview request about public comment before public comment closed online.

“It would be premature for me to react to public reaction until the collection of all comments has been completed (3/19/21),” Ray said. “The board is scheduled to have a work session on this topic at 5 p.m. prior to our regular meeting on March 23.”

Fears about reform

Multiple people opposed to the equity policy rebuked it as racist toward white people or anti-white and linked it to the movement called Critical Race Theory, a frequent source of contention among conservatives.

“This proposed new form of racism against whites should not be tolerated in DCSD or anywhere else,” one writer stated.

One person said schools should not teach children to “mindlessly blame a particular race for all of the ills of society. We should also teach our kids about all of American history. Our country had some flaws, but also had some truly great moments (we ended slavery).”

A third person outlined ethnic demographic data for the predominantly white community and said the policy “should be focused on the equity of the majority who pay the bills for education.”

“While empathy and equality are admirable traits, the school’s job is to teach the subject matter that benefits the majority of students,” the individual wrote.

Several people took exception to the policy calling meritocracy a myth, something the Douglas County Republican Party also described as disturbing in a recent blog post about the policy.

Meritocracy refers to people achieving success through their abilities and talents and not through their class, privilege or wealth. Public commenters asked if the district would begin teaching students that hard work does not help them reach goals.

“The only group that does not benefit in that system are the lazy,” a public commenter wrote.

Numerous people asked if the policy would affect which sports teams and restrooms transgender students can access.

“Will a transgender student be required to register is (sic) a transgender in order to enter bathrooms of their non-birth gender, or play sports in their non-gender sport,” one person asked, “or can any student decide how they want to identify on any given day?”

In one critic’s words, the equity policy is “a monumental waste of time.”

They echoed fears expressed throughout public comment — that if adopted, the policy would result in widespread restructuring or reform of education in DCSD, ushering in curriculum about topics like white privilege and gender fluidity.

“This so-called ‘equity’ policy addresses no real problem in DougCo schools (one would think there must be a rampant racism, prejudice, injustice, etc., etc., etc., in our community to justify such a comprehensive make-over of our school system),” an individual said.

In the party’s blog post, Douglas County Republicans called the proposed policy “troubling,” along with the district’s use of No Place For Hate, an anti-bullying and anti-racism program offered by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Douglas County Republican Chairman Stu Parker could not be reached for comment.

“Douglas County residents agree that we want great, welcoming schools,” the post reads. “However, the Douglas County School District is trying to achieve these goals in misguided ways.”

The policy places too great an emphasis on people’s differences, the post said, despite having some “positive elements.”

The policy, the blog post said, “implies that their identities dictate what they’re currently capable of achieving, and that reforming systems and curriculum may need to occur to create ‘equity’ (which is different than equality of opportunity).”

Hope for a more supportive system

Grassroots groups and equity advocates see the policy differently.

District parent Ishmeet Kalra called the policy a “first step to fixing the system.”

Kalra served as a volunteer for both the Equity Advisory Council, which drafted the policy, and work groups that helped write the district’s strategic plan, which brought forth initiatives like No Place For Hate.

She’s long wanted to see more equity for students who are not the ethnic or racial majority in the district, she said.

After George Floyd’s death, she wrote then-superintendent Thomas Tucker and board members to say the predominantly white school district “must do more.”

“We need to go beyond condemning racism,” she said.

The two most common concerns she’s heard about the policy are its stance on meritocracy and a general opposition to education systems focusing on equity instead of equality, she said.

“When we are debating ‘equality’ versus ‘equity,’ there is this fear,” she said, “if we extend resources to these kids than my kids will have less.”

People customize homes, cars, bikes, so Kalra asks, why not customize education as well?

“That means that your kid is also getting that custom treatment,” she said.

Kalra also supports describing meritocracy a myth. The COVID-19 crisis provides a perfect analogy for how a lack of support for minority or underrepresented groups affects those students’ education, she said.

She urged people concerned by that line in the policy to consider how barriers to learning during the pandemic affected their children.

“How many of those parents have felt helpless? How many of those parents have felt anger and frustration? Now, how many of those parents are blaming their kids for not living up to their potential this year,” she said. “How many of them are telling their kids, ‘Just pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.’”

Another district parent, Nara Altmann, started a group called the Equity Growth Zone after Floyd’s death. The group has held nearly 40 weekly meetings to date, gathering at first to discuss advocating for racial equity in the community at large.

Focus shifted to supporting the district and advocating for equitable cultures in schools. Some members work for the district, and many others are district parents.

Her goal is that the Equity Growth Zone gets community members of all backgrounds talking about racial equity, something the nation’s political climate makes difficult, she said.

“Every time we try to tackle something like just having a conversation around race,” she said, “people perceive that immediately as polarization.”

In a virtual February meeting, group members including Kalra and Altmann urged people to voice their support for the equity policy at board meetings and through the district’s website.

One mother hoped it would boost cultural sensitivity among educators and counselors. Her daughter’s teacher “constantly confuses her with another Indian student,” she said, and as a student of color, she feels continual pressure to fit in.

In feedback submitted online, supporters said they were encouraged to see district leadership focusing on the issue.

“This policy isn’t about limiting, prohibiting, out (sic) encroaching on anyone’s beliefs,” one person wrote.

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