Nearly two weeks after a racist petition to bring back slavery circulated at her daughter’s school, Julie Stutterheim is still angry.
She says it was yet another example of a racist incident at Park Hill South High School in the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri.
“She was very upset about it. My daughter’s Ethiopian,” Stutterheim told CNN this week.
Her daughter has encountered racism firsthand, Stutterheim says and “the more she talked about this, the more upset she got.”
Stutterheim did what any concerned parent would do and reached out to the school to find out what happened.
What she found was that an increasingly familiar scenario was unfolding at her child’s school. Across the US, there are two diametrically opposed conversations about race going on at the same time. In one, some White parents are telling school leaders that lessons about race make White students feel bad. And in the other, there’s the racism that is actually happening in schools.
District leaders condemned the petition and Jeanette Cowherd, Park Hill’s superintendent, released a video message days after Stutterheim started asking questions.
“Going forward, we have two options. We can react, or we can respond. We are choosing to respond, to create a long-term solution that best meets the needs of our students, our staff our families and our community.”
Part of that response is the district’s search for an expert adviser on race and inclusion. Yet many White parents across the US have pushed back against these efforts and conflated it with the debate over what critical race theory is and isn’t.
Park Hill is no different.
At a recent school board meeting, Sally Roller echoed an opinion that many White parents share.
“I would like to address critical race theory, sometimes called culturally responsive teaching. History is what it is, whether we like it or not, and should not be rewritten,” she said. “I fear this would cause more division and racism by causing others to be seen by skin color rather than the other individual personal qualities of the person.”
Critical race theory is not taught in the K-12 curriculum.
A national debate
Nicole Price is the CEO of Lively Paradox professional training and coaching. She has been hired in schools throughout Missouri and Kansas. She says she generally gets a phone call after something racist happens. White school leaders are often in a state of shock.
” ‘Am I surprised?’ That’s the question I get the most,” she tells CNN.
She said she’s disappointed but never surprised.
“I spend my life trying to make sure that education is at the forefront because that’s how we know that we can help to fix some of this.”
These days, Price’s job is more challenging than ever. After one Missouri school district hired her to lead a session, the school board got threats, she says.
She had a driver and asked for extra security. Price was going to the school to give a keynote presentation on “Radical Empathy.”
As Republican lawmakers across the US have fueled the debate over critical race theory and inclusive curriculum, Democratic lawmakers like State Sen. Cindy Holscher are pushing back in Kansas.
“I think the (racist) incidents have gone up, and I say that because of what I hear from my kids. That the environment is a little bit more tense in our schools. There’s more hatred out there over the past couple of years.”
This school district in Kansas City isn’t the only one grappling with how to talk about race and racism.
In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law this summer that strictly dictated what teachers can tell students about race and America.
“We’ve banned critical race theory and any curriculum or training that teaches that the United States or Iowa is fundamentally racist or sexist,” Reynolds said.
Tennessee also has a new law banning history lessons that might make students feel “discomfort” because of their race. Yet, in August sheriff’s deputies in suburban Nashville were called in after a White football player threatened a Black player on social media while wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood.
An increase in incidents
Holscher, who lives in Overland Park, says fears of critical race theory are getting in the way of schools dealing with other incidents after a photo surfaced of racist homecoming proposal at a nearby high school in Olathe, Kansas.
The school condemned the image, but three weeks before that a father condemned efforts to expand race education in Olathe schools.
“I’m here to state my opposition to DEI, critical race theory or the derivatives thereof being instructed, indoctrinated or even hinted at in the school district,” said John Highfill at a Olathe Public School board meeting last month.
“Every piece of this propaganda that will reveal itself in the false doctrines of White fragility, White rage, White privilege and the like is just that. False.”
Holscher has been getting emails over the past couple of months from White parents complaining that they are worried about their kids being taught to hate their White skin.
But Holscher says “we don’t have CRT in our schools. Second, that’s not at all, what’s happening as far as any type of teaching about teaching children to, to not like their White skin, that’s just not happening.”
Parents like Julie Stutterheim feel that her peers need to wake up to the reality of what’s really going on in schools.
“I watched my White daughter, my older daughter, grow up and not experience the things that my younger daughter has to experience. So that’s been really tough to see.”