As national news reports have shown school board meetings overflowing with parents concerned about critical race theory, the topic has also drawn attention in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

In recent months area residents have been using the public comment period during School Board meetings to address the possibility of critical race theory in schools, and one School Board candidate has made opposing the theory a central issue of his campaign.

Critical race theory, often abbreviated CRT, is a highly academic area of study more appropriate for post-graduate work than high school.

In an email to ABC Newspapers, T. Anansi Wilson, Ph.D., an assistant law professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law who has spent years studying critical race theory, defined it like this: “Put simply, critical race theory is a critical examination of the role that racial, racist and racialized ideals and practices have played and continue to play in shaping our lives, focusing primarily on law, governance and policy.”

He described attempting to educate K-12 students on critical race theory as a “fool’s errand,” saying it’s a highly specialized topic that undergraduate and law students struggle with.

Given the advanced nature of topic, the Anoka-Hennepin School District does not teach critical race theory in its schools.

But opponents of CRT frequently use the moniker loosely, as a blanket term for teaching about racial inequality or systemic racism. And amid the heightened focus on the role race plays in American society, the district has been navigating how to approach race education in schools.

“We will never say, ‘We’re never talking about race in schools,’” Superintendent David Law said. “And I think that’s hard for community members, to say, ‘Well, if you’re talking about race or if you’re talking about Black Lives Matter, it’s critical race theory.’ Lately, unless you’ve lived under a rock ... the biggest issue in society is the role that race plays in determining people’s quality of life, if you want to put it at a very simple level.”

In classes that cover current events, race is bound to come up in conversation, Law said. He pointed to when Daunte Wright was shot and killed in Brooklyn Center earlier this year.

“That was a current event ... based on the role that race was perceived to play between law enforcement and communities of color,” Law said. “You can’t have that conversation without talking about race.”

On the campaign trail

District 4 school board candidate Matt Audette has vocally opposed critical race theory in schools, and it’s a major part of his campaign. He uses what he calls a broader definition for the term, in which he doesn’t consider CRT as a graduate-level law course, but rather as principles that stem from that area of study.

“I use a broader definition to refer to a number of ideas and principles that relates to this idea of systemic racism,” Audette said.

Staff trainings involving anti-racist teaching methods are using principles from critical race theory, Audette said.

“Critical race theory is far too divisive to be successful in what it aims to achieve,” he said. “Racism exists in our society, and that is a bad thing, it’s evil. My hope would be that no one would want racism in our society. I certainly don’t. So we need to work on it, without a doubt.”

He said opposing CRT in schools isn’t racist and doesn’t mean he doesn’t want accurate U.S. history to be taught in school.

“I personally believe there’s no element of history that we shouldn’t be able to teach, whether it’s flattering to our country or not,” Audette said.

As a country, Audette believes the United States has overcome systemic racism from the past and it’s no longer allowed in the law.

Audette’s opponent, Dave Dirkswager, said CRT shouldn’t be taught to grade school students but that the way race and culture are approached in the district needs work.

“I don’t think that critical race theory should be taught to our young students, because it’s not meant for them,” Dirkswager said. “I do think there’s a lot of work to be done to help students understand different cultures.”

Dirkswager emphasized the importance of learning about various cultures.

“I would never support policies that are going to make kids feel ashamed of who they are, or their skin color, but I will support policies that promote learning about different cultures, acknowledging that there are differences between us and talking about those differences,” Dirkswager said.

What residents are saying

The district has heard comments of frustration and fear from parents regarding critical race theory and equity in schools.

For months, Anoka-Hennepin residents have raised the topics during the public comment period of School Board meetings.

At the June 28 school board meeting, Tom Pavel voiced his concern surrounding the way race is taught in the district.

“They’re trying to push more racism down the throats of our children, calling it critical race theory, which is nothing more than fanning the flames of racism,” Pavel said.

He said Anoka-Hennepin should focus its efforts on teaching children to be morally pure.

Kristina Erickson, a representative of a parent group called Anoka-Hennepin Better Together, said Aug. 23 she was concerned the district is encouraging its educators to guilt kids for their skin color.

“Their main goal is to separate people by the color of their skin and correct injustices of the past,” Erickson said. “These teacher trainings have trickled down into students’ assignments and have made many feel unwelcome. Unfortunately, anyone who stands up and opposes these views is attacked and called racist or told that they don’t want children to learn about other cultures — all of which is completely untrue.”

She said she wants kids to learn about multiple viewpoints so they can make their own decisions.

Superintendent Law has heard from parents concerned that the district is teaching white students to feel guilty for their skin color and for the actions of their ancestors. He’s also heard worries that BIPOC students — Black, Indigenous and people of color — will feel like victims during racially charged discussions.

“Where it gets dangerous is when parents have a specific belief, that they only want that belief covered in class,” Law said.

The district allows for parents to opt their students out of certain topics if they see fit, but they cannot make that decision for every student, Law said.

All this comes against a backdrop of controversy over state social studies standards, which are being revised as part of a review conducted every 10 years by the Minnesota Department of Education. Drafts of this year’s proposed standards have been criticized by people on both sides of the political spectrum, despite the Department of Education’s assertion that critical race theory “is not included in any current or proposed Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards.”

Understanding the full picture

The Anoka-Hennepin School District says it isn’t trying to make students feel guilty or victimized but to help them understand the big picture.

“We don’t think that you can shame your way into making better civilians,” Law said. “We want education. We don’t think that victimization is the path forward for our students. We think that empowering students to be free thinkers is the path forward.”

The district does use “culturally responsive teaching” strategies for training teachers, Law said. Because it has the same acronym, this training method may sometimes be confused with critical race theory.

Culturally responsive teaching considers the different experiences of each child in the classroom and uses that to better teach the class as a whole, according to an article from Northeastern University. This approach, compared to a more traditional teaching method, is meant to promote critical thinking and encourage inclusivity in class.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District also says it aims to teach history through a lens that may have previously been ignored.

“All students should be able to see themselves in the curriculum,” Andover High School social studies teacher Dan Bordwell said. “That is really important, and that is something that we have been working on to make sure that not only do they see themselves, but they also see joy, and they don’t just see a victimization.”

In the past, it was possible for Black students to see their ancestors only as slaves or as people seeking civil rights, rather than also seeing the happier and joyous times that Black communities have historically celebrated, Bordwell said.

In history classes, it’s often necessary to discuss how race played a role in major historical events, like when students are learning about desegregation, Bordwell said.

Teachers technically could forgo educating kids on Linda Brown, a Black, school-aged advocate for desegregating schools in the 1950s, when talking about the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, but that wouldn’t tell the full story, Bordwell said.

“We are hoping our teachers are going to be giving the most complete picture, so students can get a better idea of everything that’s happening,” Bordwell said. “That isn’t CRT by either the academic standard or the nomenclature of what it is right now, but it does definitely talk about race, and it is adding an extra layer of complexity that a lot of us haven’t had before.”

Teachers can share supplemental readings from authors who have certain documented ideologies, but Law said that doesn’t mean the reading or the teacher is pushing those ideologies on students. Reading about different opinions is a helpful way for kids to become critical thinkers, too, he said.

Educators are trained in keeping their personal beliefs out of the curriculum, Law said. Teachers can vote in elections, attend lectures on topics they’re interested in and advocate for their beliefs online or at protests — and none of that needs to get in the way of classroom teaching.

Jonathan Young contributed to this report.

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