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Parents bring questions about critical race theory, social-emotional learning to School Board



CLARKSVILLE, TN (CLARKSVILLE NOW) – Several parents addressed the Clarksville-Montgomery County School Board at the first formal meeting of the new school year, many with questions about a set of online resources available to families related to “social-emotional learning.”

Due to a new state law signed by Gov. Bill Lee over the summer, CMCSS decided to temporarily remove some of the SEL resources from its website for review to ensure they are compliant with the law, according to Anthony Johnson, CMCSS spokesman.

One parent in particular picked up on the change.

SEL, school shootings and suicide

During the meeting, Director of Middle Schools Mary Gist gave a presentation on social-emotional learning.

According to Gist, SEL has been in the works since 2018, but was a byproduct of a 2016 revision to the school counseling and standards model by the Tennessee Board of Education. Districts around the state modeled their programs on those standards. CMCSS leaned on CASEL, a research and policy collaborative that creates guides and resources for schools.

The need for social and emotional resources became apparent in two ways, according to Gist: a rising youth mental health crisis and an increase in school violence.

“Based on the alarming rate of suicides in the 10-to-24 age group, and the increase of mental health issues impacting school safety, CMCSS developed a focus on social-emotional learning as part of our strategic work beginning in the 2018-19 school year,” Gist said during the presentation.

She referred to the Feb. 14, 2018, school shooting in Parkland, Florida, at Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and school staff were shot to death by another student.

Following the shooting, she said, “CMCSS parents began to question CMCSS leaders regarding safety and preventative measures.” In response, former CMCSS Director of Schools Millard House, along with local law enforcement, held a public forum to discuss safety measures.

SEL was the school system’s answer to the prevention of school shootings and suicides, Gist said.

Lorri Norris, a CMCSS parent, addressed the School Board on Aug. 10, 2021 (Keely Quinlan).

Concerns about SEL resources

Because SEL was on the agenda for the Aug. 10 meeting, parents were allowed to address the board on the topic.

Lorri Norris, a mother of three and a CMCSS parent, was one of about 50 parents who attended.

“It has come to our attention as a group of concerned parents that a new curriculum may be headed to classrooms as a result of ESSER 3.0 funding recently received by the school,” Norris said.

She continued to say some of the SEL resources were derivatives of critical race theory, which was banned under the new state law.

Critical race theory, or CRT, is a 40-year-old academic concept that examines race as a social construct. In short, critical race theory defines racism as not just an individual’s prejudice or unconscious bias, but also something embedded in American legal systems and policies. Examples of this include housing discrimination, wealth inequity and healthcare access.

“However, as we continue to dig into this social-emotional learning … it appears to more and more refer to transformational SEL, which takes on a different meaning,” Norris said.

“Why are we now seeing (critical race theory) under the guise of ‘social-emotional learning’?” she asked.

She then accused CMCSS of “scrubbing” the SEL website.

“Imagine my surprise when I went to pull up information for this presentation, the CMCSS site had been scrubbed. I want to formally let everyone know in the district that we have the screenshots of what the website looked like before today,” Norris continued, adding that there were things being hidden from parents by way of removal from the website.

School system’s response

Another concern Norris brought up was that there is a disclaimer on CMCSS’ SEL website stating that CMCSS was not responsible for those resources, effectively absolving them of responsibility for resources on their own website.

The disclaimer reads: “The District is not responsible for the contents of these resources or any revisions thereto.”

The disclaimer is there to make clear that the resources are from CASEL – an external provider – and not CMCSS, said spokesman Johnson. The disclaimer is also needed because resources could be changed by CASEL without CMCSS’ knowledge.

While SEL is part of the CMCSS toolkit to address violence and mental health issues among students, Johnson stressed that the particular online SEL resources in question were not part of any curriculum that CMCSS teaches. Instead, they are optionally available to families who choose to use them.

Clarksville Now met with Johnson to review the 5 out of 11 pages of SEL resources Norris claimed were scrubbed.

Those five sets of resources were labeled “Self Awareness,” “Responsible Decision Making,” “Self Management,” “Social Awareness” and “Relationship Skills.”

Johnson said they were temporarily removed for review to ensure they are in compliance with state law and best practices.

“The district still has tabs for Community Resources, Crisis Resources, Grief Support, Safety & Prevention, and COVID-19 Support. We will continue vetting resources that could be helpful for families who are looking for support,” Johnson told Clarksville Now.

A few of the resources removed fell under the “Social Awareness” tab.

The archived website includes this statement: “Social awareness plays a large role in CMCSS students’ daily interactions. While all schools are acutely aware of cultural differences and celebrating diverse backgrounds, the high schools are actively engaged in conversations surrounding social awareness.”

A key facet of social awareness, according to the website, is considering and recognizing diverse backgrounds and cultures that others might have, including “broader historical and social contexts and norms for behaviors in different settings and to recognize family, school, and community supports for self and others.”

Another that was found to potentially not be in compliance was under “Relationship Skills,” in a subset that includes “Demonstrating cultural competency.”

That page includes this statement: “The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals, peer groups, and adults is the foundation of a child’s education. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.”

All of the resources that were removed are under review and may be returned, revised or left off the site following review. There isn’t a timeline for when that will happen.

“We will continue vetting resources that could be helpful for families who are looking for support,” Johnson said.

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