With letters circulating that call for the end to the Chagrin schools’ Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Task Force, a counter petition has sprung up in support of the group.

Parents and community members have voiced their two cents on both sides of the aisle, some stating the task force’s initiative will only deepen any divide in the community, while others say it helps the district prepare students for the diverse world.

The Chagrin Falls Board of Education hired the Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio to initiate and facilitate work in the task force, known as DEIJ, and lead the district through an “appreciative inquiry process” with the help of Dr. Amanda Cooper, chief program officer of the Diversity Center.

As of last month, the district had spent $7,500 toward the Diversity Center for their services, then-Superintendent Bob Hunt had said.

In a statement to the Times, Board President Phil Rankin provided clarification that with a final $15,000 payment made to the Diversity Center on June 30, “the total cost of the work with the task force [is] $22,500.

“As of June 30, the contract with the Diversity Center has concluded and all sums owed by the district have been paid in full,” he said.

Chagrin Falls resident Greg Stricker came before the Board of Education last month with a letter from himself and his wife signed by about 60 residents within the Chagrin Falls Exempted Village School District calling for an end to the task force. He stated he was sure he could get about 500 more residents to sign had he had the time before the meeting last month.

“As parents, we send our children to school for academic purposes which will help them to succeed and navigate in their life as they proceed onto college, vocational school, the armed forces, etc.,” Mr. Stricker wrote. “As parents, it is our job to teach and guide our children on the moral and social issues that they will encounter, that is not the job of the schools.”

He said he and the approximate 60 individuals who signed the letter feel there is no room in the educational curriculum for initiatives like the DEIJ committee, “which will teach and influence our children [through] liberal or conservative ideologies regarding race, religion and politics and take time away from teaching them important and helpful academic information.”

In his remarks, he emphasized his and many parents’ support of school subcommittees and volunteer groups, like the Chagrin Falls Dads’ Club, the PTO and Boosters Club. He expressed concern that DEIJ initiatives risk dividing students by their differences.

Three other residents, Mandy Hilston, Barb Wynveen and Debbie Lucas, also spoke up during the meeting, stating similar concerns about the potential teaching of critical race theory in schools and the inclusion of the word “equity” as opposed to the word “equality.”

Ms. Hilston said in her own letter that the inclusion of the “new popular use of the word ‘equity’ is atrocious and likely confused by some as meaning the same as equality.

“Equity teaches our children that being successful causes oppression of others,” she continued. “I believe we can all agree that we want a fair and just education for all of our children, and using practices of critical race theory is not the way to achieve this.”

During an earlier June 2 meeting, Mr. Rankin read out four other letters from residents opposed to the task force who also felt the subcommittee had been kept under wraps. In their letters, residents also voiced that teachings like race, sexual orientation or gender identity should be parents’ responsibility and should be left out of the classroom.

Lauren Miller, however, a parent of three in the district and a 2001 graduate, wrote a letter to the board of education in response to the petition by Mr. Stricker, calling for the opposite and asking parents and community members to support the task force. She wrote that the subcommittee’s work is a “worthy pursuit” in the district.

“We gain nothing by shutting these conversations down before they can begin,” she wrote. “We better serve our children by celebrating our diversity and modeling constructive dialogue on these important topics.”

After turning to Facebook on June 25 to gather support of other community members, alumni, students and staff, she’s received more than 150 comments from individuals offering their support and telling her to add their names as co-signers of the letter.

“I and my daughter are members of this group and fully affirm it as a worthy pursuit,” Pam Spremulli commented. “I am saddened to hear of opposition but all the more reason to pursue it further.”

“This is such an important issue for this community. I think it goes way beyond the schools also,” Dawn Cooperrider Dole commented, “and the whole community needs to be in dialogue about race and justice and white privilege. I will sign my name to this letter.”

As of last week, Mrs.Miller said in an email to the Times that her letter had received 685 individuals’ support, including more than 560 residents of the district and more than 120 nonresidents who are teachers and alumni.

“Having the community engaged in conversations on DEIJ helps expose us all to different perspectives. Already during this process I’ve heard stories of marginalization within our community that I would not have known about otherwise,” Mrs. Miller told the Times. “It’s difficult to hear because I love this town and have always felt at home here, but that’s exactly why these voices need to come to the forefront. There is room for improvement on how these topics are handled in our community and I think it benefits us all to pursue that.”

She said DEIJ benefits students because it prepares them for entering a diverse world, “one where many organizations and corporations are pursuing diversity initiatives of their own.

“Our graduates will be at a disadvantage in the workplace and as citizens if they have not had the opportunity to get comfortable with these topics during the course of their education,” she added.

Mrs. Miller said she felt the district has been transparent in the process of forming the DEIJ Task Force. She said she received a mass email from the district last fall and participated in several Zoom meetings for the subcommittee.

“I wasn’t able to contribute to any subcommittee due to schedule constraints but I did observe several of the full task force meetings and was impressed with the positivity and the progress that I saw,” she said. “[Dr. Hunt] remarked several times that he was pleased with the large turnout in terms of interest and participation in the group, and it felt like a community effort.”

During the June 2 update of the DEIJ Task Force, Dr. Hunt noted that the subcommittee had more than 90 members, including community members, teachers, administrators, parents and students.

School board member Sharon Broz, a task force liaison, said there have been numerous updates from the task force since the district’s June 17, 2020 resolution of “Commitment to Equity and Excellence in Education.”

“Since the summer of 2020, Chagrin schools have held regular DEIJ meetings with group membership open to all members of the community,” she told the Times. “Reports on DEIJ efforts have been presented at several board of education meetings, which are open to the public. DEIJ efforts have also been published through other outlets, including e-blasts to community members and articles” in local newspapers.

Last fall, she said, the district sent an Oct. 6 e-blast to nearly 3,000 residents in the district who were signed up to receive district communications.

“At that time, the letter described the formation of the DEIJ Task Force, announced plans to partner with the Diversity Center and invited anyone interested and willing to step forward and participate. Close to 100 people joined the initiative,” she said.

Board Vice President Kathryn Garvey, also a DEIJ liaison, explained that the district’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is not new, noting the formation of a DEI Committee in the spring of 2017 with the goal to “ensure, to the best of our ability, that the students of Chagrin Falls have a positive and safe student experience related to the district’s belief statements,” including providing a safe environment, embracing diversity and communicating in open and honest ways.

She added that last summer, as the district was updating their five-year strategic plan, known as Destination 2023, the board passed a resolution directing Dr. Hunt and Treasurer Ashley Brudno to “oversee the development of an updated Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Action Plan.”

“The DEI Committee effectively evolved into the DEIJ Task Force, with heightened community involvement, in the 2020-2021 school year,” Mrs. Garvey said. “The group has been working throughout the past year to discuss topics related to DEIJ and identify positive practices already in place across the district and in the community, which promote DEIJ for all members of the school community.”

As for whether DEIJ teachings belong in schools, Mrs. Broz noted that equity is one of the three core principles in the Ohio Department of Education’s Strategic Plan for 2019-2024, along with partnerships and quality schools.

“Ohio’s greatest education challenge remains equity in education achievement for each child,” the strategic plan states. “The path to equity begins with a deep understanding of the history of discrimination and bias and how it has come to impact current society. This plan renews Ohio’s commitment to creating the learning conditions that ensure each child acquires the knowledge and skills across all four equal learning domains to be successful.”

When engaging in a discussion with members of the public who attended their last June 16 meeting, Mrs. Broz shared Competency C3 of the ODE’s K-12 Social and Emotional Learning Standards, which states, “Demonstrate an awareness and respect for human dignity, including the similarities and differences of all people, groups and cultures,” she said.

She highlighted to the Times that the standards identify different levels of implementation appropriate based on age ranges of students under different related competencies like the ability to “recognize, identify and empathize with the feelings and perspective of others (C1);” “demonstrate consideration for and contribute to the well-being of the school, community and world (C2);” “read social cues and respond constructively (C4);” “demonstrate an awareness of personal emotions (A1);” “develop, implement and model effective decision and critical thinking skills (E1);” and “consider the ethical and civic impact of decisions (E3).”

The full ODE strategic plan is available at https://bit.ly/3kdE9WD, and the Social Emotional Learning Standards Introduction and Glossary is available at https://bit.ly/3AWIJyo.

“When it comes to defining what topics should be taught at home and what should be taught at school, the idea that schools should only be teaching the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic was abandoned by legislatures nationwide long ago,” Mrs. Garvey said.

“Public schools must adhere to State of Ohio requirements regarding teaching of financial literacy, anti-bullying, career technical education, suicide prevention, date rape, identification of at-risk behaviors, etc.,” she continued. “There is also required training for school staff on specific topics that go above and beyond the basics of teaching and learning. The most recent change impacting curriculum was the state adoption of social, emotional learning standards that must be incorporated by all public schools in Ohio.”

She said that with students having access to information “at their fingertips” 24/7, the state expects teachers “to help students learn how to evaluate reputable sources of information and then compare varied perspectives on a single topic so students can form their own ideas, opinions and conclusions.”

While “equity” is a core principle of the ODE’s strategic plan, community members have expressed concern that practice of equity risks taking away from the successes of students to give to those who may not have worked as hard.

“Equity is the opposite of equality and forces people to give up part of what they have worked hard for and give it to others who have not,” Ingrid and Bill Porter of South Russell had stated in one of the letters Mr. Rankin read during the June 2 meeting.

The Times reached out to the Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio for clarity on the definition of equity, as well as how critical race theory may play a role in DEIJ initiatives, and received an organizational statement from President and CEO Peggy Zone Fisher on behalf of the center.

“Equity refers to a practice where people receive conditions or resources that they need to participate in society. In contrast, equality is about equal and exact division,” according to the statement. “Equity encourages us to develop a society where all people have access to fair treatment, basic rights, protections, security, opportunities, obligations and social benefits. Equity is about making sure everyone has what they need to succeed.”

Individual Education Plans would be an example of this, according to the Diversity Center.

“An IEP provides the opportunity for students with disabilities to have resources and conditions that allow them to engage with classroom materials, lessons and activities to the same degree as their peers,” the center stated.

As for critical race theory, or CRT, the Diversity Center stated that this is not something they teach “or that informs our programming in schools in any way.

“CRT originated from law schools in the ’70s to understand and examine the impact of racism in the law, legal procedures and policies,” the center stated. “CRT is taught at the graduate level, usually in masters and doctoral programs as a concept. It is not related to DEIJ.”

According to the Diversity Center, their programming “focuses on empowering students to feel confident in who they are and have the skills to recognize and intervene when others aren’t being included,” as well as enabling educators and administrators to engage in difficult conversations affecting students and families and “engaging families and caretakers in gaining the skills to offer solutions to make their school feel more inclusive to all students.”

Mrs. Garvey said the task force does not have authority to make changes to the district’s curriculum or instructional programming and that all K-12 curriculum is guided by ODE standards. Advanced Placement courses, she said, receive guidance from the College Board.

“There have been no curriculum or programmatic changes proposed to or adopted by the CFEVS Board of Education as a result of the DEIJ Task Force,” she added.

Mrs. Miller said diversity isn’t just about race.

“It also encompasses things like gender expression, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disabilities and neurodiversity,” she said. “Keeping all of our beautiful differences in mind helps learners of all kinds get an excellent education within our school system.”

She said her main goal in writing the letter of support of the task force to the board and adding the co-signers was to demonstrate that there is support of the task force in the district.

“I want the Board of Education to know that there are a great many people in Chagrin Falls who appreciate this initiative and believe in its mission,” she said.

She said equity to her means “every child’s learning is supported,” like one child receiving help through IEP programming and another having access to advanced programming. “Equity doesn’t mean that excellence isn’t rewarded or that everyone hits the finish line at the same time – it just seeks to ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to run their best race.”

Sam joined the Times in 2019 and covers several communities and schools in the Chagrin Valley and Geauga County. She also oversees the features/community events and the website. She earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from Kent State University.

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