There were no standoffs between the Gwinnett County Board of Education and parents at the board’s meeting on Thursday, and district officials said they were thankful for that.
Several GCPS police officers and Gwinnett County Sheriff’s deputies were parked in the parking lot at the district’s J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center, where the meeting was held.
Attendees also had to go through a tent with security officials who were checking in people who had signed up to speak during public comment. There were no disruptions during the meeting.
“It was much better (and) incredibly productive relative to the obstruction that occurred at the last board meeting,” school board Chairman Everton Blair said.
The meeting held Thursday night was orderly — a stark contrast to the heated confrontation at last month’s meeting between board members and parents who refused to wear face masks when they were asked to do so.
Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks laid out the expectations for decorum as the meeting got underway.
“Tonight, as you entered this facility, you were provided with a flyer that outlined the expected behavior and decorum of visitors to the meeting,” the superintendent said. “It is unfortunate and disappointing that we have to share this information ...
“We cannot and will not let adult misbehavior have a negative impact on the important work that we, as a governing board, are doing for the children of this county.”
Blair attributed the more orderly scene at Thursday’s meeting to “planning, the proactive measures that we took and just stating some of the misconceptions and re-stating them in a manner of truth before the meeting began.”
But, while there were no standoffs, there was debate over Critical Race Theory.
The Critical Race Theory issue, in particular, has been rising as a key issue in education across Georgia and elsewhere in the U.S. Gov. Brian Kemp has publicly come out against the teaching of the theory in Georgia schools and the State Board of Education has condemned it in a resolution as well.
The theory puts forward the idea that minorities — particularly Black people — historically faced systemic racism in the U.S.
“Critical Race Theory holds that the most important thing about you is your race, literally the color of your skin is what defines you,” one opponent of the theory, John Devnew, said during public comment. “It’s not your character, behavior, values, environment, none of that. It’s just your race.”
There were speakers who pushed back against Critical Race Theory opponents, however.
“The Georgia board of Education passed a resolution which stated, with their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of or failures to live up to the authentic founding principals of the United States,” Anyah Jones said.
“How can parents trust the State Board of Education with our children’s education when they attempt to whitewash American history. Slavery is not a deviation, but a true representation of the foundation American was built on. Did they forget about policies such as the three-fifths compromise that were written into the Constitution as a means for incorporating slavery into this country’s founding system?”
But, despite the debate over it, district officials have pointed out the theory is not part of GCPS’ curriculum.
“Even though many people discuss Critical Race Theory on a professional level, in the diversity and inclusion space, it is not taught in the GCPS curriculum,” Board member Tarece Johnson, one of the three Democrats on the board, said.
Board Vice-Chairwoman Karen Watkins added, “CRT is not being taught in our school system, nor is it a policy, nor is it anything that we are broaching today.”
One Gwinnett County teacher, Teandra Storey, said the rumors that the theory is being taught in the county’s schools endangers efforts the district is undertaking in the areas of equity, inclusion and diversity.
“I am here to reassure you that, as a social studies teacher in this county, I have never taught my white students, who I absolutely love, that they are oppressors due to their skin color,” Storey said. “I don’t know an educator in this county that would teach that.
“However, I do know that there are educators that are teaching revisionist history like ‘the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but it was about states rights.’ I do know there are educators who teach students that all slaves were not treated bad.”
A parents group that has formed as pushback over issues such as in-person versus digital learning, the decision to terminate Wilbanks’ contract early and mandating face masks is Gwinnett County Parents for Quality Education.
That group held a press conference before the board meeting It was intended to be a response to a press conference Solicitor General Brian Whiteside held on Monday, but Critical Race Theory was attacked multiple times by speakers.
The group has identified itself as a chapter of No Left Turn in Education, which is itself a group that describes itself on its website as, “A voice to push back on the Leftist agenda sweeping into public education and to underscore the ideals and values that make our country exceptional.”
Speakers at the press conference derided Critical Race Theory as “Marxism” and as being disruptive and divisive.
“When you really get down to what (Critical Race Theory) is all about, it’s really marxist, communist thought with race substituted for class warfare,” Army veteran Paul Gardiner said as he and other military veterans addressed attendees at the press conference. “That’s what it is, plain and simple.”
As the Gwinnett group’s leader, Holly Terei, led a prayer at the press conference, she said, “We stand up for the truth to fight against ungodly policies that are being perpetuated in our nation.”
State Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, announced during the press conference that he plans to file legislation during the 2022 legislative session to bar the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Georgia schools.
“I can promise you I will be a champion to get that legislation passed,” the senator said.
Dixon told the Daily Post after the press conference that he plans to work with the governor’s office on the legislation. The senator is one of Kemp’s floor leaders in the state Senate.
“I’m waiting to see what direction the governor is going in, but essentially, it would ban any teaching of (Critical Race Theory) or any kind of curriculum that relates to that,” Dixon said.