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Critical Race Theory Roils Central Ohio School Board Meetings

Debates over critical race theory are bubbling up in Central Ohio school districts. Fueled by politicians, cable TV pundits and social media postings, the topic has led to some lively school board meetings.

Summer is usually quiet for Central Ohio School board meetings, but not this year.

Questions about how to teach students about race and racism have come up for debate in the Olentangy and Hilliard school districts. After the murder of George Floyd, many teachers looked to incorporate lessons about racism in their classrooms. Some conservatives have argued those discussions distort history and cause division.

The debate came to a head at Columbus Academy. Last month, the private school banned three students from attending next year because their moms attacked administrators on a right wing podcast episode about critical race theory.

The school sent Andrea Gross and Amy Gonzalez a letter saying they unfairly represented the school publicly in the past few months, and most recently, on the podcast.

Columbus Academy spokesman Dan Williamson says the school will not comment on specific families or students, but released a statement saying parents that wage “a public campaign of false and misleading statements and inflammatory attacks” harmful to Columbus Academy could be denied enrollment. The parents did not respond to a request for comment.

But Columbus Academy, Hilliard and Olentangy schools seem not to be teaching what parents are complaining about.

Pranav Jani directs the Asian American Studies program at Ohio State University. He said people misunderstand critical race theory. He points out critical race theory is an academic discipline that traces racism’s role in society and legal policies.

“So students certainly aren’t learning that on the K-12 level," Jani said. "Instead what’s happening, is CRT has been picked up on by Fox News and by right-wing politicians in order to express their antagonism to anti-racist education in the classroom.”

Some parents complain their kids are being taught that some are oppressors and others are the oppressed.

But at a board meeting in May, Olentangy Board of Education president Julie Wagner Feasel argued the district does not teach students to hate themselves or their countries, or that people are being judged by their race.

“I accept that we can always do better," she said. "But anyone claiming that critical race theory has come into our district in every facet of our organization including our curriculum is also wrong.”

Ohio State’s Jani said the parents’ reactions could come from many different angles. He said some truly believe that anti-racist education is actually racist.

But it’s not just white parents who complain about the theory. Jani told the story of a Black parent who was worried they would have to raise their child in a society where they will become biased against white people from what they learn in school.

And while he understands that worry as a parent himself, Jani said critical race theory is not about putting race and people in categories. It’s about looking at larger structures that he says people need to come together and dismantle.

“What they’re teaching is simply, let’s look at history in an all-rounded way that shows us the truth of everyone, and not simply the truth of the people who conquered and won and dominated," he said.

And that’s why Jani believes many people are actually just on the fence about what they think critical race theory is — that they just want their kids to be able to live with everyone and are therefore questioning the need to teach lessons on racism.

But he said it’s just about learning the whole truth in order to create a society where people are not judged for their skin color or who they are.

“Actually living with everyone in a sort of friendly and fair way doesn’t mean hiding the histories that brought us to this place, and that made us who we are, but acknowledging them, looking at them, recognizing the inequalities that exist in the world, and actually then doing something about them,” he said.

Michael Lee joined WOSU in 2021, but was previously an intern at the station in 2018. He is a graduate from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism where he obtained his master's degree, and an alumnus of Ohio State University. Michael has previously worked as an intern at the Columbus Dispatch and most recently, the Chicago Sun-Times.