Tennessee declines to act on first complaint under new law banning critical race theory

The Tennessee education department declined to investigate the first complaint under a new state law that bans some teaching approaches to issues of race and bias – a complaint that included a book about the Rev Martin Luther King Jr and the March on Washington.

Tennessee declines to act on first complaint under new law banning critical race theory
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Related: In the 1950s, rather than integrate some public schools, Virginia closed them

The bill, passed in the spring, includes among its targets critical race theory, or CRT, an academic discipline that examines the ways in which racism operates in US laws and society. CRT is rarely taught below college level but Republicans across the US have exploited fears about it for electoral gain.

The Tennessee complaint was filed by Robin Steenman, chair of the Williamson county chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative parents group, the Tennesseean reported.

The 11-page notice alleged that a literary curriculum, Wit and Wisdom, in use by Williamson county schools and at least 30 other districts, presented a “heavily biased agenda” that caused children to “hate their country, each other and/or themselves”.

The group took issue with several books adapted for younger readers on topics including King’s leadership of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the integration of schools in California by the activist Sylvia Mendez and the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to desegregate an all-white primary school in Louisiana.

Tennessee declines to act on first complaint under new law banning critical race theory
© Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters Robin Steenman, chair of the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, complained that her county’s civil rights curriculum teaches children ‘to hate their country’.

“The classroom books and teacher manuals reveal both explicit and implicit Anti-American, Anti-White and Anti-Mexican teaching,” the complaint claimed.

“The relentless nature of how these divisive stories are taught, the lack of historical context and difference in perspective, and the manipulative pedagogy all work together to amplify and sow feelings of resentment, shame of one’s skin color, and/or fear.”

The complaint also alleged that the curriculum “implies to second-grade children that people of color continue to be oppressed by an oppressive ‘angry, vicious, scary, mean, loud, violent, [rude], and [hateful]’ white population”.

In a letter obtained by the Tennessean, the state education department explained its decision not to investigate. Officials said the complaint concerned the 2020-2021 school year, but the department was only authorized to investigate complaints from 2021-2022.

Officials also said the complaint was filed outside the time frame required and did not follow outlined process. It was also filed before Tennessee had adopted a process for how to handle complaints.

“Please note that in declining to investigate these claims, the department has not made a determination regarding the merits of these allegations,” the letter read. “We encourage you to work with the Williamson county school district to resolve the issues and concerns related to your complaint and ensure compliance with state law.”

The curriculum, Wit and Wisdom, is still used in Williamson county schools and in neighboring districts. A spokesperson for Great Minds, the company that produces it, told the Tennessean in July the curriculum did not include any concept banned by the new legislation.

As of 22 November, no appeals had been filed against the first ruling. A Williamson county committee is reviewing the curriculum and other content flagged by parents. Results are expected in December.

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