DURHAM — An August memo welcoming back Orange County Public Schools staff for the 2021-22 school year included a set of “talking points” for staff to use when talking about Critical Race Theory.
The memo, sent by Orange County Schools (OCS) Superintendent Monica Felder, also said a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document on Critical Race Theory (CRT) was going to be posted to the district’s website. As of yet, no such FAQ is publicly visible on the district website, but North State Journal obtained a copy of the talking points and FAQ.
“Additionally, while not something we teach in OCS, over the summer, Critical Race Theory was a hot topic in many parts of the country. We’ve created an FAQ and talking points document for staff should you need them. It can be accessed here,” the memo reads.
The introductory paragraphs say the document “is meant to serve as a resource” to answer questions about CRT and equity in the district, but “it is not a script.” The point of contact for the talking points is Dr. Dena Keeling, chief equity officer for OCS.
The talking points and FAQ document simply calls CRT “an academic framework.”
The document’s definition goes on to compare CRT to other fields which “study our country’s past and how it impacts us today,” saying that “Critical Race Theory is a set of ideas and principles that relate to this past and how racism has impacted both our past and our present.”
CRT is offshoot of Critical Theory, a Marxist ideology that divides every aspect of society into two groups, oppressed and oppressors. Critical Theory was adapted by members of the Harvard Law School when examining the Civil Rights Movement from a legal perspective. Modern Critical Race Theory evolved during the mid-1970’s through the 90s by substituting race for class.
Felder’s talking points also state that “We do not teach this framework at Orange County Schools,” and that “We don’t have any courses speciﬁcally focused on Critical Race Theory, nor is it part of the curriculum.”
In an inquiry about the talking points and FAQ, North State Journal requested all email exchanges from May 1, 2021, to Aug. 16, 2021, between the public (that can include parents, lawmakers, teachers and other officials) and OCS and/or to the OCS board that reference Critical Race Theory.
One email responsive to North State Journal’s request was a forwarded “EducationNext” article titled “Critical Race Theory Collides with the Law“ from OCS deputy superintendent Dr. Kathleen to a group called “Cabinet.” Another email was from the North Carolina School Board Association’s executive director Leanne Winner and was addressed to the group’s board. Winner describes the email as a “heads up” that protests against CRT will “likely take place across the state and potentially at your school board meeting.”
“Naysayers” and CRT as a “distraction”
An Asheboro City Schools employee email titled “greetings” asked multiple districts, including OCS, if they had been “experiencing Critical Race Theory inquiries/assaults.”
The “greetings” email was sent by Robin Harris, Asheboro City Schools’ “Director for Equity and Inclusion.”
“I wanted to ask the council of equity leadership warriors for their perspective on current policies entering our schools,” Harris wrote. “Also, the indoctrination language is seeping in as well as attempts to thwart our equity efforts. Do you have any advice for me?”
The first to respond to Harris was Rodney Trice, the then-assistant superintendent of the Office of Equity Affairs for Wake County Public Schools.
“I would guess equity office across the country are experiencing similar issues,” wrote Trice.
His response also suggested to “be clear about what we do and don’t do,” be “unapologetic about addressing race and racism,” and to link to district equity work to “our strategic plan and core beliefs.”
Trice was hired by Wake County in 2015 but resigned in May of this year to return to Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools district which is now paying Trice $161,94 as the district’s “Chief Equity and Engagement Officer.” His resignation followed North State Journal’s report that he had given oversimplified CRT talking points to the Wake County School Board and also denied CRT was being used in the district, despite ample examples involving his own department.
Following Trice’s response, OCS’ chief equity officer Dena Keeling added that she thinks they should be “leading with data” instead of concepts like CRT.
“I’m trying to avoid having the naysayers lead the conversation, which is a strategic distraction,” said Keeling in her reply. “I’m trying to focus on the students and bringing the discussion back to equity being about them.”
The final response in the “greetings’ email chain came from the Effie McMillian, the executive director of equity for Winston-Salem Forsyth County schools who agreed with the previous statements.
“Even though CRT isn’t explicitly taught in our schools, we have emphasized how we are ensuring through our curriculum the voices and perspectives of Black and Brown folx [sic] that have been traditionally excluded,” wrote McMillian.
“We are continuing our work through our AA, Hispanic/Lantinx and American Indian courses. We are also leading with data and aligning our work to the strategic plan which has a strong focus on racial equity,” McMillan wrote. “We can’t let it be a distraction.”
Emails involved top OCS board staff
Other documents received did include inquiries from parents about “equity” and CRT. Two emails involved OCS school board members.
Vice chair of the OCS board Brenda Stephens responded to a question about CRT and the General Assembly from a UNC student newspaper reporter. Stephens, in part, replied that there is “significant disagreement and confusion surrounding CRT,” and that “people always fear what they don’t understand.”
While there may be no official lessons using CRT or obviously labeled as CRT in Orange County classrooms, North State Journal found that the district’s teachers were being trained in CRT’s core principles. Training related documents obtained by North State Journal include a “cultural proficiency continuum,” “Antiracism work and culturally relevant teaching in schools,” as well as a list of suggested books and other resources.
North State Journal asked OCS why teachers were being trained with courses that draw from CRT if teachers were not expected to use that training in the classroom. The district did not answer the question as of press time.