Nevada schools reckon with race, triggering polarization

A man holds up a sign against Critical Race Theory during a protest outside a Washoe County School District board meeting on May 25, 2021, in Reno, Nev. Nevada school boards are becoming hotbeds of political polarization where parents are clashing over how to teach students about racism and its role in U.S. history. In Washoe County and Carson City, parents spoke Tuesday, June 8, 2021, against the concept of critical race theory being taught in schools, despite the fact that officials in both districts insist they have no plans to include it in lesson plans. (Andy Barron/Reno Gazette-Journal via AP)

RENO, Nev. — One year after protests over racial injustices and police violence swept the country, clashes over how to teach students about racism and its role in U.S. history are raging in school districts across Nevada and elsewhere, stoking culture wars over curriculums and strategic plans that have previously received far less attention.

In Washoe County, a debate over a proposal to expand the K-5 curriculum to include more teaching about equity, diversity and racism has coalesced with a debate about the district's mask policy, drawn crowds to local school board meetings, forcing officials to arrange overflow rooms and set up loudspeakers outdoors to accommodate attendees. Superintendent Kristen McNeill recommended the district form a task force to review curriculum instead of implementing the plan. The board approved the task force on Wednesday.

In Carson City, a proposal to incorporate concepts like equity into the strategic plan raised parental concerns about how schools broach the topic of race.

And in Clark County, the Black mother of a mixed-race student is suing a Las Vegas charter school over a “Sociology of Change” course that covers the concept of privilege as it pertains to race, gender and sexual orientation.

Both Carson City School District and Washoe County School District insist that “critical race theory” isn’t part of their curriculums or plans, but the nationwide discussion has touched down locally and stoked fears among those who doubt administrators’ explanations.

Opponents say the districts' plans incorporate tenets of critical race theory, which draws a line from slavery and segregation to contemporary inequities and argues that racism remains embedded in laws and institutions.

“You say there’s no CRT in this curriculum,” Sparks resident Bruce Parks said at the Tuesday board meeting in Reno. “It is being taught in our schools right now. When you use words and language like ‘white male privilege’ ‘systemic racism,’ that’s straight out of CRT.”

The clashes mirror fights underway throughout the U.S.

In GOP-controlled statehouses, lawmakers have passed measures prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory, claiming the lesson plans proposed constitute indoctrination and teach students to hate the United States. Nevada has bucked that trend, with lawmakers approving a proposal last month to add multicultural education to social studies curriculum standards and teach students about the historic contributions of members of additional racial and ethnic groups.

Opponents of Washoe County's curriculum proposal camped on the eastern side of the entrance to a packed local school board meeting on Tuesday, wearing MAGA hats and carrying signs that read “No CRT," “CRT teaches racism,” and “The School Board works for the people!”

To combat concerns about ideological indoctrination, the Nevada Family Alliance has proposed outfitting teachers with body cameras to ensure they aren’t indoctrinating students in classrooms.

“You guys have a serious problem with activist teachers pushing politics in the classroom, and there’s no place for it, especially for our fifth graders,” Karen England, the group's executive director, told trustees Tuesday.

On the other side of the entrance, students, parents and teachers wore green T-shirts and carried signs with slogans including “Amplify Student Voices" to signify support for “Washoe County School District Students for Change," a group that has pushed for curriculum additions.

“These are systemic issues, and they’ve been here for a long time. But I think the protests last year really gave light to how divided people were and how polarized people were,” said Michael Arreyguy, a college student who attended Washoe County schools. “There’s people who don’t want to acknowledge that these problems exist — that there is systemic racism and injustice.”

On Tuesday at the Carson City School Board meeting, Jason Tingle said he was concerned when he heard talk about critical race theory in schools. But he reviewed district materials and concluded the fears were unfounded because the lesson plans weren't there.

"I’ve yet to see anything in the curriculum that shows that we are actually going to take a hardcore approach to critical race theory," said Tingle, who has four children enrolled in district schools. “Until our kids come home and show us something different or tell us something different, then we should keep our faith in the school district and let them do what they were sent here to do.”


Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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