Springfield school district swept up in national controversy over critical race theory

Claudette Riley
Springfield News-Leader
Protestors gathered May 18 outside the headquarters for Springfield Public Schools to oppose critical race theory.

For months, speakers have lined up to demand the Springfield school board reject critical race theory, which they believe has been embedded into mandatory diversity training for the district's teachers and staff.

They expressed fear that critical race theory, which has become a political lightning rod in recent years, has invaded classroom lessons through videos, discussions and books introduced to students.

Springfield is not the first district to offer training as part of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. And, it is not alone in receiving pushback.

Protests over critical race theory have played out on school campuses across the U.S., prompting lawmakers at the state and federal level to propose legislation aimed at banning critical race theory and putting restrictions on what can be taught in diversity training or American history.

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Protestors allege critical race theory is embedded in diversity training required for employees of Springfield Public Schools.

The theory is not a curriculum. It is a decades-old academic and legal framework for understanding and combating structural and system racism.

Opponents argue critical race theory is an attack on mainstream institutions — from courtrooms to public schools — and has roots in Marxism and Communism. They allege the theory perpetuates stereotypes, undermines academic freedom and fuels racism.

"I'm asking all of you, how do you see this community grow under this concept of pitting one group against another based on skin color," said Meike Aton, a German-born artist who spoke at a recent Springfield school board meeting. "In previous years in this country, that was prohibited. That was called racism."

She added: "It very much reminds me of Hitler in the 1930s to '45. Hitler was an excellent pitter of one race against the other, the Jews in Germany."

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Defenders of the school district's diversity efforts say the criticism misrepresents what is being taught.

"I have listened and read and viewed with keen interest local opposition to the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts of SPS as well as statewide and nationwide," said Wes Pratt, chief diversity officer at Missouri State University. "Such efforts are in large measure part of organized nationwide efforts to promote confusion, divisiveness, polarization as part of political agenda campaign."

Wes Pratt

Pratt added: "It is an effort to maintain partisan political power in a changing, evolving America that for too many citizens is threatening, or perceived to be threatening, due to the evolving and increasing demographics."

CRT in the spotlight during board election

Critical race theory was in the spotlight during the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign and then-President Donald Trump issued a ban on diversity training in federal agencies that included the theory or "white privilege," labeling it racist and liberal propaganda.

In January, President Joe Biden reversed the ban on the theory, which examines systemic racism, white privilege, unconscious bias, intersectionality, and other race and gender bias issues.

The local opposition to critical race theory became more vocal in March after a secretive "conservative Christian group" called Back on Track America got involved in the April 6 school board election.

They set up a website and distributed flyers backing three candidates including two who were elected — Scott Crise and Maryam Mohammadkhani — along with a platform that, among other things, opposed the theory. Both of the newly-elected board members distanced themselves from the group but Mohammadkhani has expressed concern about critical race theory.

Maryam Mohammadkhani

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A flyer paid for by the group Truth in Politics alleged Springfield teachers were forced to participate in training based on the theory "which has roots in Marxism" and to identify themselves on an "oppression matrix" based on their own race.

In late March and again Tuesday, Calvin Morrow help organize protests against critical race theory outside the district headquarters prior to board meetings. For the first one, he asked pastors to attend on "behalf of their flock who are being conditioned to hate their country, hate their church and hate each other."

Norman Ely, a radiologist, said in a recent board meeting that the district ought to spend more effort on academics. "I can only assume you are purposely trying to create distrust and division in this community. SPS's role is to give all students a great education, which you are clearly failing to do."

On March 23, Calvin Morrow spoke to a group gathered to protest critical race theory outside the Kraft Administrative Center.

District says theory not part of training

In August 2019, the Springfield school district convened a diversity and equity advisory council. The goal was to recommend ways to close the achievement, attendance and graduation gaps for students from under-resourced and historically underrepresented groups.

They also worked on ways to make the district more inclusive and to recruit, support and retain an increasingly diverse workforce.

Part of what emerged from that council was the beefed-up diversity training that started in 2020.

The district has repeatedly stated, through its chief communications officer, that the new training was not based on critical race theory. However, opponents of the theory argue its themes are embedded in the lessons, even if they are not labeled as such.

This spring, opponents of critical race theory have repeatedly spoken at board meetings and, recently, supporters of the district's diversity training have been signing up to talk in growing numbers. Nearly 40 people signed up to address the board at the start of Tuesday's meeting.

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Until that meeting, there had been little, if any, public discussion of the theory by board members.

Mohammadkhani said she asked about the content of the training and received an email from Superintendent John Jungmann that "indicated the content in the training is not critical race theory."

Yvania Garcia-Pusateri, the first chief equity and diversity officer in the district, agreed with that position. "This training does not have critical race theory."

However, she acknowledged critical race theory was a component of training provided to the district leadership team by the Facing Racism Institute at Missouri State.

Yvania Garcia-Pusateri

Mohammadkhani asked Garcia-Pusateri to alert the board if the theory is used in future training sessions. "I think we should be transparent about it."

In her update to the board Tuesday, Garcia-Pusateri said 3,572 employees attended two-hour training sessions, in person or virtually, that were taught by 28 district trainers. She said the training focused on three topics:

  • Identity and Self: Who we are and how identity shows up in our roles at SPS
  • Systemic Racism and Xenophobia: How we should address these complex issues within our school system
  • Our ethical responsibility to make SPS an inclusive and equitable learning environment for all students

Members of the public who spoke on behalf of the district's training said it pursues a worthy goal.

Elizabeth King, an associate professor at Missouri State, said children should be taught the truth about American history and given "tools to create a more just society."

Elizabeth King

"It starts with us, as adults, doing the work to truly understand the realities of racism," she said. "From there, we can help all children succeed and build a better world than what we inherited. Isn't that kind of what we all want here? We will not harm children by talking about racism."

She added: "We do harm children by being too afraid to talk about it."

Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to criley@news-leader.com.