Racism, Restorative Justice, and Critical Race Theory in the Howard County Public School System
How "Critical Social Justice" Activists Have Taken Over Our School System
Opened in 1967, Columbia, Maryland began with the idea that a city could enhance its residents' quality of life. Creator and developer James W. Rouse saw the new community in terms of human values, rather than merely economics and engineering. Columbia was intended to not only eliminate the inconveniences of then-current subdivision design, but also eliminate racial, religious and class segregation. In so doing, the city became a national success story that attracted a diverse and highly educated community from around the country and the world. Columbia has consistently ranked in the top 10 of CNN Money's Best Places to Live in the United States. In 2020, Columbia was ranked as the 5th best place to live in the U.S. Nearly 40% of Maryland high schools rank among the best in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report, and Howard County was ranked as the best school district in Maryland.
But today, we are told that Columbia and the rest of Howard County is a segregated community that suffers from systemic racism. Our Board of Education and the Superintendent of the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), with the support of the County Council, directed that our schools be desegregated through redistricting by busing children from one neighborhood to another. But while the community was focused on the 2019 redistricting proposals, our activist Board of Education also began the implementation of a teacher and student reeducation curriculum partly based on the “anti-racism” principles of Ibram X. Kendi and Critical Race Theory. In June of 2020, a 105-page petition entitled “Addressing Racism in Howard County Public Schools,” signed by 400 current and former students, and supported by unidentified faculty and staff, provided testimony about “structural and institutional racism” and “microaggressions” within the school system.
The petition set out a very detailed set of demands, to include the removal of school resource officers (police), the creation of a required black history course, the incorporation of anti-racist literature into high school history and English classes, mandatory cultural proficiency, implied bias, and conflict mediation training for teachers, and the hiring of diversity, equity, and inclusion liaisons (DEILs) for every school. According to the petition, “Punishing reported instances of racism is not enough. We need to dismantle the White supremacist notions that fuel these incidences.” The demands were so specific that it is clear that someone with intimate knowledge of school curriculum, operations, policy, acronyms, and teachers’ union initiatives must have written them. It seems as though authentic student testimony was presented merely to provide grass-roots justification for the acceleration of changes that had already been put into place in select schools by 2017.
The new teacher and student training programs that have already been implemented by the HCPSS Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) emphasize Restorative Justice. What is Restorative Justice? It is “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior … and reducing future harm through crime prevention.” It “requires offenders to take responsibility for their actions and for the harm they have caused” and “seeks redress for victims and recompense by offenders.” Who are these offenders and victims of which they speak? Your teachers and children.
Teacher cultural proficiency training sessions have already begun and require them to participate in discussions that label white people as oppressors who suffer from implicit bias and label black people as victims of their oppression. Teachers have been required to sit in meetings to hear how all white people were born racist and participate in study of the #1 bestseller book White Fragility, which one critical reviewer said “may be the dumbest book ever written.” The Seattle library system recently implemented similar training sessions with employees physically segregated by race. Although we have not seen the same explicit physical segregation of teachers in our school system, the program of instruction is based on the same discriminatory racial stereotypes.
In 2019, focused lessons on implicit bias expanded to all elementary schools for K-5 students during Social, Emotional Learning time, while student-led facilitation focused on bias began in grades 6-12. The anti-bias training curriculum began in 8th grade in 2020, with training modules for every other grade coming in the next couple of years. Some parents only became aware of the elementary school training sessions when they were able to view their child’s distance learning Zoom video sessions from home this year.
The English 8 G/T (Gifted and Talented) curriculum, for example, includes a module on freedom. The book list contains titles exclusively from minority or diversity-related categories, but none from traditional American or European literature. Students are expected to analyze the material based on Critical Race, Feminist/Gender, or Marxist concepts. There apparently is no discussion of the classical liberal principles upon which American democracy, law, ethics and free markets are based. Ironically, the “freedom” module leverages Marxist ideology, despite its history of producing authoritarian regimes that have destroyed both political and economic freedoms and murdered millions of their own citizens. Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Bolshevik Party, once said "Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted."
Changes to the K-12 curriculum to emphasize diversity, equity and inclusion will soon transform even math and science classes into forums for Critical Social Justice, which should not be confused with the concept of social justice that everyone can agree on. Educators around the country have been discussing how “school systems ought to support math educators in deconstructing and discarding the white frame of mathematics education” and changing math education so that it cannot be used for “algorithms of oppression.”
The HCPSS diversity office has grown from a single person in 2018 to six positions in 2019 to nine positions in 2020, with a budget of over $1.4M dollars. Additional funding is likely embedded in other parts of the budget, such as the $1.5M teacher and paraprofessional development program and other programs responsible for curriculum development. And last year, the National Education Association (NEA—teachers’ union) provided a 3-year grant of $438,720 to the Howard County Education Association (HCEA—teachers’ union) to help implement a whole-school Restorative Justice model in the HCPSS. At the same time, other programs have been cut, including special education and new teacher development, and class sizes have been increased.
Accelerating diversity, equity and inclusion work has been identified in the FY2021 budget as a top priority of the Board of Education and Superintendent. According to Board of Education Chairperson Mavis Ellis, regarding the increase in positions from 6 to 9, “We did get three more [diversity, equity and inclusion] staff in this budget, but it can’t end there.” Regarding large COVID-related costs, she said “I applaud the hard work of our staff as they have identified some areas to reduce costs as a result of the pandemic, but the cuts are not nearly enough to overcome the significant costs associated with responding to needs in a system as large as ours.”
Language in the “student” petition discussing the need to remove school resource officers seems to come directly from the NEA’s “Racial Justice in Education Framework.” According to the petition, “Having Resource Officers in our schools subjects Black and other marginalized individuals to the devastating effects of racial profiling at an incredibly young age, which further perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline for Students of Color.” They demand that HCPSS defund the police (SROs) “and redistribute the money towards other initiatives, such as hiring additional school counselors and psychologists, behavior specialists, and support professionals and providing conflict mediation training for all faculty and staff.” The petition ended with the warning “If you do not take action, you are complicit.”
Regarding the need to remove SROs from schools, Chairperson Ellis took a racially-charged position when she said, “Many students and others in the Black community are very wary of having armed, inadequately trained and possibly racist police officers in our schools.” While the law does not require SROs, it does require school systems to either have SRO coverage in schools or to provide “adequate” police coverage to schools when needed, according to HCPSS General Counsel Mark Blom.
So, where do we go from here? We expect school budget cuts due to the impact of COVID-19 along with continued increases in the student population. Will the Board of Education choose to continue to prioritize controversial anti-bias, anti-racist, pro-Marxist training instead of increasing class sizes or cutting special education, or supporting the already defunded Teachers for Tomorrow program? Will they choose to fund increased transportation costs related to redistricting in support of school “desegregation?” Or will they scale back and transform their Restorative Justice initiatives into a non-discriminatory form of diversity awareness training that everyone can agree upon? Will we replace the teaching of failed Marxist analytical methods and the disputed Critical Race Theory with the successful classical liberal teachings that have been the foundation for our democratic institutions?
Everybody wants equity in our school system to ensure every child receives a high-quality education free of discrimination, but we also want them to learn what is good about America and give them the skills to pursue their own American dream. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. … I have a dream that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” We don’t want to diminish or reverse the great progress we have made since those words were spoken.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a color-blind education to the ideologues who are pushing radical changes on our public education system. They believe you are either racist or anti-racist, an oppressor or a victim, white or a person of color. Color-blind education is considered racist. So, it will be difficult to reverse the changes that have already been made and about which the public is largely unaware. I wonder if the 400 students who signed the anti-racism petition understood exactly what they were going to get.
Is Columbia, and Howard County as a whole, still the unique and progressive land of diversity and inclusion that was originally built by James Rouse and has flourished since the very beginning of the Civil Rights era, or has something gone terribly wrong here? I believe that the Critical Social Justice movement has gone too far by exaggerating what racism exists in our community and implementing a divisive and illiberal program based on Restorative Justice, Critical Race Theory, and Marxist ideology that is destructive and discounts our ability to judge each other by the content of our character and continue to work towards the dream of racial harmony.
“This is the challenge for liberal Democrats,” said Omar Wasow, a Princeton professor who studies race and politics. “In a diverse society, how do you enact politics that may advance racial equality without reinforcing racial divisions that are counterproductive and hurt you politically?”
Citizen testimony during the redistricting debate of 2019 was a clear display of an incredibly diverse, multi-racial, multi-ethnic population united in concern for the education and welfare of all its children, not a population divided by racial animosity. Readdressing the accelerating diversity training and reeducation curriculum in a transparent and public manner should be a top priority for the new Board of Education--before it is too late.
I don’t really understand your criticism of using a Marxist lens. It is essentially a tool to analyze and critique a text through the perspective of class. It’s used by historians and other theorists worldwide, even those who don’t subscribe to a left-wing ideology.
Is the switch from "diversity, EQUITY, and inclusion" to "diversity, ETHICS, and inclusion" intentional or an error. If intentional, will you please explain?