Critical race theory, COVID-19 response take center stage at Washington County school board meeting

A local parent stands to address the Washington County School District Board of Education on the topic of mandatory COVID testing and mask exemptions, St. George, Utah, May 11, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — At Tuesday’s meeting for the Washington County School District Board of Education, parents and other community members arrived by the dozens to voice their concerns about critical race theory, mandatory COVID-19 testing and the board’s response to the pandemic.

Superintendent Larry Bergeson addresses the gathered crowd. The majority of the public comment was directed at the school district’s handling of the mask mandate and other COVID precautions, St. George, Utah, May 11, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Time for public comment was limited, but that portion of the meeting was extended to accommodate more speakers. Fourteen of the 15 attendees that had the opportunity to speak expressed some measure of frustration with COVID-19 precautions, including previously limited mask exemptions and ongoing “test to play” restrictions in high school athletics.

“It is clear to me as a parent that I’m not being defended by the Constitution as I should have been,” said Erica Hodges, a local parent. “There was a disregard with what my family needed when it came to the response from the district this year. Our rights were limited under the guise of safety.”

Hodges’ sentiment about the district’s early response was echoed by many others who offered public comment, with some individuals thanking the district for choosing to not enforce the mask mandate but scolding the board members for not allowing broad exemptions earlier.

“We had expressly and very powerfully proven our desire to unmask our children almost a whole year ago,” said Laura Bean, a local parent. “Those of you who did not listen to (us) and literally do your only job of representing us quite frankly acted treasonously.”

Only one individual stood in support of enforcing the mask mandate. Thomas Williams addressed the board midway through the public comment section and notified them that he had reached out to state education officials with his concerns.

“I do not understand where the board feels they have this authority,” Williams said. “As an employee of the district, I feel gutted. I have a high-risk wife that I go home to every day. I don’t understand why we couldn’t wait 11 more days.”

While Williams spoke, members of the crowd booed and spoke over him. Board President Kelly Blake had to interrupt Williams briefly to remind the crowd to listen quietly and respect his time for comment.

Critical race theory in Utah schools

Bean and other individuals who rose to speak, expressed their concerns about the possibility of critical race theory becoming part of Utah schools’ curriculum. Critical race theory is an academic movement characterized by the claim that institutionalized white supremacy exists and it is necessary to expose and overturn power imbalances based on race.

Members of the community that attended Tuesday’s school board meeting mingle after the meeting’s end, St. George, Utah, May 11, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Members of the audience said they had received a survey through the state’s school system asking questions about diversity and inclusion, and some said they heard the Utah State Board of Education was considering adopting elements of critical race theory.

“Critical race theory is anti-American woke ideology that threatens faith, family and freedom,” said Amanda Todd, a local resident. “This curriculum will divide rather than unify. You must ban CRT from entering our schools.”

Steven Dunham, communications director for the Washington County School District, said the district had reached out to the state board of education seeking clarity on Utah’s position on critical race theory.

Dunham shared the state board’s response, which included the following:

The State Charter School Board requested training from one of our staff members on Equity Literacy for their directors…The content included a couple of slides with definitions that included terminology like white supremacy, dominance, privilege, and oppression…These few slides were meant to create understanding of the terminology and not promote any particular ideology. While this presentation was for a particular audience, it did get shared on social media with a narrative that made it sound like the Board is voting on Critical Race Theory or Project 1619(sic). It is not.

The state’s response also noted that the training was voluntary, and members of the state board of education were invited to join the training along with members of the state charter board.

Blake said that the local board had no intention of adopting critical race theory, and Board Member Craig Seegmiller added that he wanted to be notified if parents see it in their children’s schools.

New sexual harassment policy

The school district is considering a new policy for handling sexual harassment cases in the district. Policy 2116 codifies sexual harassment response and outlines the rights of all parties involved in potential cases.

Karen Bess, director of student and health services, presented the new policy as part of the meeting’s discussion portion. She told the St. George News that the new policy is distinct from the previous non-discrimination policy that included sexual harassment. 

“Previous administrations looked more at the victims’ rights: this policy looks at both,” Bess said. “There’s a presumption of innocence until there’s a thorough investigation. It has a lot of restorative and supportive measures for both parties.”

Under the new policy, sexual harassment is defined as quid pro quo agreements, unwelcome sexual conduct that is so severe that it denies a person equal access to education and dating violence or sexual assault. Circumstances that don’t meet the exact definitions of the new policy will be addressed under other policies, Bess said.

The new policy also states that an accused teacher or other district employee will not face any disciplinary action until the process of investigation and decision-making is complete, except in the case of immediate threat to a victim’s physical health or safety.

In this 2020 file photo, Washington County School District board member Terry Hutchinson discusses his frustration with the mask mandate, St. George, Utah | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

When asked for comment, members of the board asked questions about employees’ obligation to report and the process of investigation. Board Member Terry Hutchinson questioned the time frame for an investigation to be conducted.

“I don’t see a time frame in here for people to conduct their investigation,” Hutchinson said. “It just says the time frame will vary. There’s nothing set there. Common sense would say, ‘Yeah, you want to jump on it and you want to get it done,’ but if for some reason that doesn’t happen it really hurts both parties.”

In response, Bess and Lyle Cox, executive director of human resources for the district, said they had consulted with legal advisors and a decision was made to remove an investigation time limit from earlier drafts. 

The board will continue to review and discuss the new policy in future meetings. The next scheduled meeting will be held on May 24 at 5:15 p.m.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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