With the state embroiled in controversy over systemic racism in schools, a lawsuit against Albemarle County Public Schools could make the area a battleground.
The lawsuit targets Albemarle County schools’ plan to eliminate racism and close long-standing achievement gaps among student groups. Five Albemarle families allege that the division’s anti-racism policy discriminates against students and creates a culture of hostility in schools. The complaint comes as Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration focuses more critically on steps school divisions have taken to address inequities.
Several legal and education scholars said they see the lawsuit as part of a broader national movement against critical race theory, which opponents have used to describe explicit discussions and lessons regarding systemic racism. That movement, they said, was a response to the 2020 protests over racial injustice and the efforts to advance racial equality. They also see ties to the state-sanctioned effort to block integration, known as Massive Resistance.
“[In Virginia], we’ve seen this movie before,” said Jamel K. Donnor, an associate professor of education at William & Mary. “When there’s progress, when there’s socio-cultural racial change, there’s this pushback and there’s this blowback from those who have a vested interest in the status quo at the expense of those who have been historically and traditionally excluded or subordinated.”
In Virginia, the push against teaching about racial inequities took center stage in the recent governor’s race and has been a focus of Youngkin’s administration, which has sought to ban the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts.”
There is a difference between critical race theory and anti-racism education, educators say. The way opponents have described critical race theory is wrong, said Janel George, the director of Georgetown University’s Racial Equity in Education Law and Policy Clinic.
“There has been this conflation of critical race theory as being associated with anything related to race,” she said.
George said critical race theory is a legal theory and an approach to examining the role of law in furthering racial inequality. George has studied the potential of legislative interventions to eradicate racial inequalities in education.
“It is not a discrete body of thought, if you will. It is an approach,” she said, adding that it usually takes graduate students a semester to understand the foundations driving the theory. “It’s purposefully complex.”
Albemarle County schools has said critical race theory is not part of its curriculum, a claim disputed by Ryan Bangert, senior counsel and vice president of legal strategy of Alliance for Defending Freedom, who is representing the families in the lawsuit.
Parents started publicly decrying the division’s anti-racism policy for its purported connection to critical race theory near the end of last school year. Those arguments culminated in the lawsuit filed last month, which cited anti-racism lessons piloted at a county middle school, book purchases and training for teachers, among other examples.
“The principle that the lawsuit is really standing on is that our public schools should never promote race-based divisions,” Bangert said. “Unfortunately, that’s what the school system is doing.”
The suit is one of several filed across the country that challenge lessons about racism and efforts to advance racial equity in public schools.
The Arizona-based Alliance for Defending Freedom is a national nonprofit that seeks to defend religious liberty and parental rights, among other issues, according to its website. In Virginia, ADF has been involved in lawsuits regarding a teacher’s First Amendment rights and has challenged the Virginia law that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The parents suing the Albemarle County district are Carlos and Tatiana Ibañez, Matthew and Marie Mierzejewski, Kemal and Margaret Gokturk, Erin and Trent D. Taliaferro and Melissa Riley. Their children were identified by initials only. Through ADF, they declined to comment.
Other parents who spoke at recent School Board meetings and who have weighed in on an open letter, said commitment to anti-racism should be non-negotiable.
“This policy was developed by ACPS students, and we endorse their valuable work and are disgusted by the lawsuit’s devaluing of this landmark policy,” said Amanda Moxham, an Albemarle parent and member of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County.
The school division was officially served with the lawsuit earlier this month. The division has not yet filed a response to the complaint, and a hearing hasn’t been scheduled, according to county court records.
“Responding to these cases in public rather than in the courtroom serves no useful purpose,” said Phil Giaramita, spokesman for Albemarle County schools.
A plan to improve
The policy at the center of the Albemarle lawsuit was adopted in 2019 as a way to improve academic outcomes for students who have historically lagged behind their white, more affluent peers.
The policy, which was drafted by students, broke down that task into five categories — policy communication; leadership and administration; curriculum and instruction; professional learning and training; and policy enforcement. Division staff identified 27 different things to carry out under those categories and have been working to implement the different provisions since late 2019. Some of those tasks include examining bias in curriculum, alternative discipline programs and changing how students are recommended for advanced classes.
George said Albemarle County’s anti-racism policy is laudable in that students drafted the document, especially in their call for curriculum and instructional materials to reflect cultural and racial diversity.
“Data show that students who are able to see themselves reflected in the curriculum, to see their culture reflected in the curriculum, perform better,” George said. “So thinking about what contributes to inequality and outcomes, it is partially the exclusion of the stories and histories of people of color.”
Mary Bauer, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union-Virginia, said lawsuits such as the one filed against Albemarle County Public Schools and the broader campaign do a disservice to students.
“It’s part of this larger trend of censorship in schools,” said Bauer. “It is our view that students have a right to learn and talk about race and to receive an accurate and inclusive education, and lawsuits like this are ill-conceived and really do a disservice to kids of all kinds.”
Youngkin’s first executive order after taking office in January banned the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory.” He later established an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, where families could share tips regarding inherently divisive practices in schools. That email address was blasted by state education groups, including the Virginia Education Association, which called it a divisive distraction designed to intimidate educators.
A state senate bill that would have codified that order into state law was killed in committee this week. Meanwhile, House Bill 781, sponsored by Del. Wren Williams, R-Stuart, would eliminate the jobs of equity or diversity directors in schools, and the teaching of “divisive” concepts such as that “capitalism, free markets, free industry, and other related economic systems are inherently racist,” among other provisions. No hearing has been scheduled on that bill.
The new Massive Resistance
George said the lawsuit and actions taken to restrict the purported teaching of critical race theory reflect tactics used to block school integration in the 1950s.
In 1956, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Virginia lawmakers moved to defund integrated school systems. Gov. Thomas B. Stanley shut down schools for five months, including two in Charlottesville, to prevent integration. The collection of laws known as Massive Resistance were adopted in 1956 and struck down as unconstitutional in 1959.
“Virginia has been the battleground,” said George.
George wrote recently that a direct line can be drawn from Massive Resistance to the current anti-race equity instruction efforts.
“This focus on critical race theory is new but it’s some of the very same old tactics that have been invoked before,” George said. “I know this sounds dramatic, but it’s maintenance of white supremacy.”
Bills to ban critical race theory and teaching about race would revoke funding for districts and penalize teachers, both tactics used during Massive Resistance, George said. The Virginia House bill would make a violation of its provisions a class 4 misdemeanor
“This is why the law is significant,” George said. “They are using the legal system to wage these campaigns and using the school system to be the site of these campaigns.”
To George, what’s at stake is the future of the U.S. public education system.
“If we don’t prepare students, who can engage in critical thinking, who can relate to people of backgrounds different from themselves, who can make decisions for themselves about what is right or what is wrong, I really fear that we are betraying the purpose of public education,” she said.
Bauer, with the ACLU, echoed that.
“What does that do for those kids to say, we don’t want them to even hear this and we don’t want them to have to grapple with painful lessons from our history,” she said. “Where does that leave us as a society of kids who can’t learn true stories?”