Feb 17, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Indiana school's reported Black History Month opt-out option draws ire

Photo of a masked person standing in the middle of a school classroom filled with desks and red chairs
Photo: Jon Cherry via Getty Images

An Indiana public school has become embroiled in controversy after a school counselor reportedly sent a letter to parents giving them the option to opt their children out of Black History Month lessons.

Why it matters: The Indiana case comes as some states impose new restrictions on diversity education under the guise of banning the teaching of critical race theory.

How it happened: In the letter posted to Twitter, Sprunica Elementary School counselor Benjamin White wrote that he will be teaching lessons related to "equity, caring, and understanding differences" in the next two weeks.

  • "Studies show that students who have a greater understanding of diversity in the classroom and outside world will demonstrate improved learning outcomes such as improved grades, better peer relationships, and greater career success later on."
  • "If you would like to opt your child out for receiving these lessons, then sign the form below and have your child return it to the school," the letter states at the bottom.
  • 97% of the school's 237 students are white, per data from the state's Department of Education.

The latest: Brown County Schools Superintendent Emily Tracy acknowledged the letter in a message to students, families and staff on Wednesday.

  • The district is gathering more information on what happened, Tracy said, adding that "we support teaching about the facts in our history including historical injustices."
  • In an email to IndyStar, Tracy said district policy does not allow an opt-out option for required curriculum, including social studies and history. "Any decision related to parental consent and curriculum determinations are made in accordance with the law," she wrote.
  • White and Tracy did not immediately return requests for comment.

Worth noting: The Indiana House has already passed a bill to restrict what teachers are allowed to say about race, politics and history in the classroom, IndyStar reports. The legislation is now with the state Senate.

The big picture: Since last year, 14 states have imposed such restrictions through legislation, executive actions or commission votes, an Education Week analysis found.

  • In addition, 35 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict teaching critical race theory  a concept that focuses on the legacy of systemic racism — or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.

What they're saying: "It’s so anti-intellectual. It’s so rigidly closed. It’s almost an effort to keep people walled off from the past," Yale historian David Blight told Axios after hearing about the Indiana opt-out controversy.

  • "I mean, do we give parents an option to opt-out about learning biology? Do we give them an option about learning mathematics? How about an option for learning to read and write?"
  • History has always been a controversial subject because it’s about competing narratives about the past, said Blight, the author of the Pulitzer-winning biography "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom."
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