Leaders of a small Minnesota school district recently ended their relationship with a group they had hired to work on equity/diversity issues.
Sartell–St. Stephen school administrators had contracted with Woodbury-based Equity Alliance MN, an organization that does audits and conducts surveys to help school districts develop anti-bullying and anti-discrimination plans. But community pushback to the firm's work formed when some parents said their students were instructed to answer questions and not talk about them with parents or other adults.
The matter received national attention when a Sartell mother and her fourth-grade daughter appeared on "Fox and Friends." The student said some of the questions made her uncomfortable, as did directions to keep the equity survey from parents or other adults. A district official called that issue a misunderstanding, but clearly there was confusion in classrooms.
After the controversy erupted, Sartell Superintendent Jeffery Ridlehoover and his board voted to cut ties with Equity Alliance and instead create their own equity committee made up of staff, parents, students and community members. Ridlehoover said that the board and community "struggled to make sense of the equity audit," and that Equity Alliance did not respond to parent requests to publicly share the questions.
Still, that doesn't mean that Sartell or any other district should give up on anti-racism, equal-access efforts. Schools still need to collect information from students to develop honest evaluations of where they stand on bullying, harassment and other discriminatory behaviors, including race- or gender-based biases that can get in the way of learning.
Sartell-St. Stephen is not the first Minnesota school district to run into backlash while addressing race and equity issues. In Brainerd this spring, community pushback caused the cancellation of a University of Minnesota professor's presentation to teachers about racism in rural communities. Objections were raised about the educator's stance on white privilege and white supremacy. And in St. Paul a few years ago, objections to teacher equity training led to ending a contract with an outside consultant.
Equity and anti-discrimination work is not necessarily one-size-fits-all; it must be tailored to district needs. At the same time, educators must have the courage to ask the tough questions. And district leaders must be committed to follow through, make needed changes and track results.
Though Sartell and other districts have had problems, some Minnesota districts have created their own plans or worked successfully with groups such as Equity Alliance. The Minnesota School Boards Association, for example, is one of many state education groups that has lauded the work of the Woodbury organization.
Some of the resistance to focusing on equity, diversity and cultural competency in public schools has wrongly been mixed up in the current debate over critical race theory, or CRT. Some critics have incorrectly interpreted CRT as teaching that all white people are racist, and some argue that it instructs kids to hate America.
But it is not wrong to tell the truth about injustices in America's past or present. Acknowledging those shortcomings isn't anti-white nor racist. Rather, facing facts is the first step needed to solve some of the nation's race-based biases that affect schools and students.
Ultimately, in Sartell and elsewhere, any anti-racism and equity work in schools should be focused on improving educational outcomes for all students — regardless of their race, ZIP code or family economic status.