Some VB School Board members seek review after criticism of equity policy, posts of training to social media platforms

Ed. — From the Sunday, March 28, print edition.


VIRGINIA BEACH — Efforts by Virginia Beach School Board Member Vicky Manning to call attention to staff training and teaching she claims are racially divisive led this past week to a contentious, marathon meeting of the board that included discussion of the schools’ equity policy and criticism of “misinformation” distorting the district’s efforts to provide a path for success to all students.

It led for calls by some members of the board for a review of how Manning obtained and posted materials from a staff training presentation that included sections officials acknowledged were problematic. However, the board ultimately took no action during the meeting.

Manning, who said she was provided the training by a teacher, called the idea that she improperly received it slanderous. Her concerns have included whether the district is teaching “critical race theory” and social justice activism.

The situation has led to conflict heard in remarks by dozens of members of the public, some of whom expressed concern about ideas they felt cast whites as oppressors. Other speakers decried misrepresentations of why honestly addressing differences helps students. And there was obvious discord on the board, too.

Officials supportive of an equity policy adopted this past year, which aims to address things such as factors that affect student achievement, have said Manning’s accusations mischaracterized the intent of an effort that, at this point, includes no formal, district-wide, mandatory training. And they said social media outrage does not accurately represent training programs for staff – addressing difficult issues and challenges that impact students such as race, class or gender identity is not new – and has led to confusion about what students actually learn.

Recently, Manning has shared information about aspects of training within the public schools for staff that she says represent “critical race theory,” essentially a scholarly approach toward addressing racism in society and institutions. She also has maintained students face “radical  indoctrination.”

Writing at a website earlier this month, Manning wrote, “Critical Race Theory and Social Justice movement have become endemic in Virginia Beach schools.” Manning, criticizing a training session for educators, wrote that teachers were told “white people should admit they are racist” and acknowledge privilege. 

The concept of critical race theory has became a bit of a buzzword in some discussions of diversity training at the national level.

But, as city schools officials tell it, the narrative that this is how the division teaches students or trains personnel isn’t true. During the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence said part of the video shared online — which essentially says everyone has racial bias as part of a wider discussion – would not have been something he would have approved.

However, he added, the overall training for personnel has been mischaracterized due to use of this example as representative. He addressed some confusion about what educators learn in training to better serve students and what is taught in classrooms, too.

“We are not in Virginia Beach city public schools – definitively – we are not shaming white children,” the superintendent told the School Board. “We are not teaching white children to be ashamed of being white. Nobody is doing that in Virginia Beach City Public Schools.”

Dr. LaQuiche Parrott, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the schools, also spoke during the meeting. 

“To our School Board and to our viewing public, critical race theory is not a part of our written, taught or assessed curriculum in Virginia Beach City Public Schools,” Parrott said. “Nor has it been a part of any division-wide professional learning.”

Parrott said the division has professional training about culturally responsive practices. The goal is show value for both “individuality and inclusivity.”

School Board Vice Chairperson Kim Melnyk, who represents the Princess Anne District, said recent weeks have been painful for the schools. She said she was saddened Manning’s posts online had included information about teachers in the training session.

“What I am speaking out against is the method in which this was handled by a board member,” Melnyk said, before accusing Manning of improperly gaining access to a training session for school employees and reproducing and distributing the materials. Later, Manning vehemently denied that, saying a teacher shared the materials with her.

School Board Member Sharon Felton, who represents the Beach District, said the division is at a crossroads as it seeks to build an equitable, fair division. Felton said teachers in the training session that was made public were working in a safe environment, not worrying about a “fox in the henhouse” or expecting information to be shared.

School Board Members Trenace Riggs, who represents the Centerville District, and Beverly Anderson, who holds an at-large seat, also said the matter should be reviewed.

“I hope that you will give me some time to address all of these false accusations and slander that have been made against me this evening by not only members of the public but my colleagues on the School Board,” said Manning, who holds an at-large seat.

She said she has been falsely accused of using a school computer and someone else’s credentials to access a training session. 

“That is absolute slander and false lies, and I will not stand for it, and I will be calling my attorney first thing tomorrow morning,” Manning said.

School Board Member Carolyn Weems, who represents the Bayside District, said she was stunned “four board members used this meeting to have a character assassination of another board member.” She said she was concerned about training that includes “wording that divides rather than unites us.”

School Board Member Jessica Owens, who represents the Rose Hall District, said the schools should continue to support equity efforts and honestly address challenges that effect different people.

“If as a district we’re going to say that we value diversity, we have to be able to see each other for our entirety and look at who is at the table and who is not at the table,” she said. “…We can’t have meaningful progress in the achievement gap until those affected by the achievement gap are at the table.” 

Also during the meeting, School Board Member Laura Hughes, who holds an at-large seat, said people can disagree with a policy without being characterized as a racist, and she urged the division to make training available to the public. 

“Make it public, make it transparent, and maybe this problem goes away,” Hughes said. “If the public is able to see exactly what you’re teaching staff and students, either their opinions are validated or their opinions are invalidated.”

“This is not in student curriculum,” Spence said, after addressing some public comments. “… Our curriculum is the Standards of Learning. … We’re teaching math, science social studies, language arts, world languages, career technical education, all of the things our community expects us to teach. We’re not teaching critical race theory.”

There is training about culturally responsive practices that teachers can choose to take. It is not mandated, and he stressed it is not critical race theory, as has been discussed online and in comments to the board. Spence, at one point, wondered whether some of the people who spoke might be able to define their idea of critical race theory.

Manning on Thursday, March 25, reached a much wider audience by appearing on a Fox News program. Asked to define critical race theory, Manning did not seem to provide a clear definition but said it is being taught under the guise of terms such as equity. 

“What I’m seeing in our schools is that it’s not necessarily called critical race theory,” Manning said. “They’re using semantics and disguising it as culturally responsive practices or equity. But what’s happening is our students and our teachers are being taught that our country is innately racist, and students and teachers are being pitted against one another based upon their skin color.”

The host agreed. Manning said she had been attacked by colleagues on the Virginia Beach School Board and falsely accused of sharing teacher information. 

She said she has hired a lawyer.

© 2021 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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