Athens High School

Athens High School. File photo by Ben Peters.

By Sydney Dawes

Athens NEWS Editor

The Athens City School District Board of Education passed a resolution at its June 24 meeting expressing disapproval of two Ohio House of Representatives bills that restrict the discussion of topics such as racism and sexism in public schools.

The bills in question, House Bills 322 and 327, would effectively ban the teaching of critical race theory, among other topics, in public schools and local and state government training settings.

Critical race theory, according to The Wall Street Journal, is an academic concept originated in the 1970s by legal scholars that argues the legacy of white supremacy in America remains embedded in modern society through laws and institutions.

HB 322 primarily focuses on K-12 public school settings, while HB 327 is concerned with the teaching of racism and sexism, which lawmakers claim to be “divisive.” Similar bills, backed by right-wing groups, have been passed in several other states.

The bills were both introduced in the Ohio House under different primary sponsors back in May and are currently in discussion in the State and Local Government committee. Both bills have been backed by Athens County’s state Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville), who serves as a co-sponsor of the legislation.

Edwards did not immediately return a request for comment on both bills.

The school district’s board met in regular session June 24 evening via Zoom to discuss the resolution, along with other agenda items. In a statement, the Board described the bills as being an “intrusion into curriculum, instruction, and training.”

“These bills support a false or diluted understanding of our history,” the resolution, which was unanimously passed, stated. “We ask that our state legislators carefully reconsider this unprecedented interference in public school curriculum. Neither race, racism, gender, sexism, and other concepts outlined in these bills are ‘divisive.’”

The board noted in its resolution that topics deemed “divisive” in the proposed legislation are “realities that students face everyday.”

“Students can have age-appropriate conversations about difficult issues and walk away with a broader understanding of their communities, state, nation, and world,” the resolution said.

The board was concerned that both bills could impede state educators’ training.

“As with many other challenges experienced by our students, these require similar training and support for our teachers and staff as they work to support the needs of every student in Ohio,” the resolution stated. “As a school board we strongly reject this. We know this to be true; egregious governmental overreaches as outlined in HB 322 and HB 327 will be detrimental to the well-being of our students and to the dialogues so sorely needed.”

A copy of the resolution will be sent to several state leaders, Supt. Tom Gibbs said.

Shea Burden, a mother of three Athens City School District students and a fourth-generation educator, noted in an interview with The NEWS that both bills present numerous problems for students, teachers and state employees. Burden will be testifying against the bills before the House. The professor also is a member of the Athens Parents 4 Racial Equity, a local organization that advocates for diversity education.

HB 322, Burden said, could inhibit students as they prepare to enter into the workforce.

“In a workplace, multiple views, opinions and beliefs are accepted, discussed, debated, and negotiated to be able to determine solutions, avoid repeating mistakes,” she said. “It has the potential to reduce the skills of students.”

In addition, proposed amendments to HB 327, Burden said, require that educators have an impartial discussion of controversial aspects, thus dampening “the educator’s ability to provide context, consequences, and impact on others which can negatively impact the ability of students to analyze, do critical thinking, make decisions,” she said.

In addition, Burden criticized the process both bills have been subjected to. Although both bills primarily focus on public education, they are sitting in the House’s State and Local Government committee, as opposed to the Primary and Secondary Education committee, which she believed to be improper.

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said in an interview that local anxiety over the bills’ statuses has been growing, with parents, teachers and city residents meeting virtually to coordinate engaging with the chamber through opposition testimony.

Patterson pointed to both bills serving as forms of censorship, noting that it could strip opportunities to develop critical thinking skills from students and teachers alike.

“Isn’t that what education is all about?” he said.

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