Lexington school board hears from supporters of teacher accused of teaching CRT

Posted 7/19/23

A Chapin teacher, who had previously heard calls for her removal after being accused of teaching critical race theory, received an outpouring of support at a July 17 Lexington-Richland District 5 School Board meeting.

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Lexington school board hears from supporters of teacher accused of teaching CRT


A Chapin teacher, who had previously heard calls for her removal after being accused of teaching critical race theory, received an outpouring of support at a July 17 Lexington-Richland District 5 School Board meeting.

Mary Wood and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote the book that was included in Wood’s curriculum at Chapin High and sparked the recent controversy, were in attendance as several members of the community took the opportunity afforded by the night’s public comments section to rally behind Wood and express dismay at the way the school board has reacted and the way it has treated her.

Both Coates and Wood declined the Chronicle’s requests for comment.

Wood’s lesson featuring Coates’ memoir “Between the World and Me” elicited concerns from some members of the public, including some who called for her removal at the board's June 26 meeting.

The June meeting saw state Rep. RJ May (R-Lexington), the chair of the hardline conservative legislative group the S.C. Freedom Caucus, speak, as well as new Lexington County GOP Chair Pamela Godwin and state Rep. Joe White (R-Newberry).

The caucus has been active in pursuing instances it sees as showing the teaching of critical race theory, having recently settled a suit with Lexington County School District 1 over allegations that its curricula included such ideas.

The school district previously shut down the lesson in question, a course with whichmany who spoke at the most recent meeting disagreed.

“Being able to be exposed to these other points of view brings awareness, not shame,” said 14-year old Valerie Green. “If the school district continues to censor these important outlooks, we’ll become blind to them. There is shame in that.”

According to reporting done by The State newspaper’s Bristow Marchant, Wood planned for the book to be used during the course’s argument essay unit, but a couple students complained about the material, saying it made them ashamed to be caucasian and violated a state budget provision passed in 2021.

That proviso stipulates that no money can be used by any school district or school to teach several concepts, including that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” “an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his race or sex,” “an individual's moral standing or worth is necessarily determined by his race or sex” and “an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

Cedelle Gates, chair of the Education Committee for NAACP’s Lexington branch, said all children have a right to a free and appropriate education no matter their race or ethnicity. She said that certain individuals and the conservative group Moms for Liberty are trying to prohibit this while actively trying to divide communities and students to further their cause.

Gates told the board and audience members that teachers provide a syllabus at the beginning of the semester, adding that students and teachers were aware of the course content, which includes supplementary materials and assignments.

“We applaud Mrs. Wood for being an advocate for the education of all students and her noble service. We strongly support her and she must be reinstated and restored to full employment status immediately,” Gates said. “She has demonstrated excellence, resulting in consistent strong test scores.”

“We urge you to retain Wood,” she added.

Patrick Funk, former Chapin High english teacher, expressed his support of Wood through a tale he used in his own curriculum: “Oedipus Rex.” The Athenian tragedy includes themes of murder, incest, suicide, self-harm and violence, he reasoned, but still has something important to teach students.

“Despite this community's seeming objections to controversial materials, I've never seen the challenge of this piece of work despite it being taught regularly at high schools across the district,” Funk said.

According to Beth Bedenbaugh, a retired teacher, parts of history along with other viewpoints should make kids feel uncomfortable, as this in turn creates empathy.

“If kids don't learn about the difficult stuff, if they don't become uncomfortable, history will repeat itself,” she said. “If slaves, Native Americans, Jews, the Little Rock Nine, Ruby Bridges, women's suffragettes and other groups can endure what they did, then our kids can most certainly learn about it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them because that ladies and gentlemen keeps us from repeating the bad parts of history.”

Tess Pratt, English department chair at Chapin High, told those in attendance that she bought the book for Wood after it was approved the previous year and that critical race theory has never been taught or brought up in any training or meetings at the school.

“On the day that I took Ta-Nehisi Coates’ books out of the hands of Mrs. Woods students, I silenced his story,” she said. “Even though that was a decision that was not mine, I will regret that moment in front of those students for the rest of my life because it was wrong.”

During the board's subsequent discussion of academic freedom and the teachings of controversial subjects, Superintendent Akil Ross started the conversation by asking,”What is controversial?” Ross said that that answer is defined by the community.

He urged educators to have conversations with other educators and administration to work through any issues that come up regarding controversial topics and to resort to the principal if needed.

Ross emphasized that parents should reach out to the principal or the teacher before going to the board, relating this to a personal story when he had to reach out to a principal and teacher due to his daughter’s history book referring to slaves as workers/employees. Ross suggested a possible solution could be introducing a first-hand slave account to offset the opposing opinion.

Council member Mike Satterfield echoed the call to go through the teacher and principal first, stating that when he was a principal, getting a call from a board member was one of the most frustrating things.

Satterfield was one of the more outspoken board members as he expressed support for Wood.

“I represent every child. I don't care what religion, what race, what gender identity, I don't care. I represent every child, every teacher.” he said before also emphasizing his support for teachers.

“We are here to serve the community. You are an integral and immensely important part of this community,” Satterfield said, addressing teachers. “You determine the success of our schools.”

Satterfield also spoke about the retention of teachers, mentioning teachers who are eligible for retirement but are still teaching. He said that the worst thing the district can do is give them a reason to leave.

Kimberly Snipes and Kevin Scully joined Satterfield in saying the district's current policies are fine. Catherine Huddle seconded this but said there are some parts that could be expanded upon.

Elizabeth Barnhardt, who was endorsed in her 2022 campaign for a seat on council by Moms for Liberty, said the board wasn’t there to change the policies.

“With teaching controversial issues, I agree with everyone,” she said “They should be taught to children. However, we should just ensure that when they are taught in a way that abides to our policy as well as state law.”

Barnhardt was silent for the remainder of the discussion.

Board Chair Rebecca Blackburn-Hines said that there are no policies strictly for critical race theory, mentioning that it can be frustrating due to not having a model policy or anything to that effect.

Hines said that when it comes to materials presented in the classroom that there is a difference between making a student feel uncomfortable and making a student feel less than or that they need to be apologetic.

Scully said that if the district is trying to reach the overall goal of preparing kids to compete in a national and global world then limiting what they are exposed to is not the way to do it.

“It prepares our kids to compete, whether we like it or not, or agree with it or not, they're going to have to compete in the world,” he said. “Life is coming at them, regardless of what we teach them, we better teach them to be ready to handle it and to be able to get along.”

Ross closed by making a commitment for how he will lead the district moving forward.

“I commit to working with our staff to teach how we use looks like “Between the World and Me,” so there's no confusion,” he said. “I commit to staff development to ensure that teachers know where their protections are. I commit to ensuring that that young lady who says she's never seen a required reading from someone of color, that's no longer the case. I commit to providing a world of multiple viewpoints for all of our students. I commit … even though it's not in our policy, that we ask our principals to see if we talked to the teacher first.”

“I need us as a community together,” he added.

chapin high crt, lexington-richland school district 5, Ta-Nehisi Coates, critical race theory sc


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