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School board approves social justice task force after far-right backlash (photos)


Photos by Eric Marks

More than seven hours of public comment preceded the Washoe County School District (WCSD) Board of Trustee’s decision on Tuesday about proposed social justice resources to be added to English Language Arts curriculum for students in kindergarten through fifth grades.

The resources were created by Advanced Benchmark, a for-profit education company that already provides some of the district’s education materials. The board had announced a step back from it prior to the meeting, signaling instead that it would form a task force on social justice, and had removed references to it from the district’s website.

People began signing up for public comment, milling about with signs, setting up chairs and socializing on the lawn in front of the school district’s administration building about an hour before the meeting began.

A group of people in support of social justice resources and a group opposed to it kept to themselves under separate shade structures.

Bev Stenehjem opposes the proposed social justice resources for English Language Arts curriculum at the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees meeting June 8, 2021. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

Bev Stenehjem*, with an American Flag shawl wrapped around her shoulders, stood with the group opposed to the proposed social justice resources. She said the overwhelming majority of feedback received by the district about the proposed resources was negative.

This is true. Nearly 84% of people who responded to the district’s request for feedback voiced opposition.

“And they still want to move forward with the task force, and we feel that they are going against the people, the will of the citizens, the parents, the taxpayers that live in our community,” Stenehjem said. “And we want them to listen to us and stop this curriculum. We’re all for teaching kindness and respect. How about an anti-bullying class?”

Stenehjem also said that upon walking around the administration building parking lot that afternoon people noted more than a dozen California license plates and questioned if non-residents were there to provide comment. She said she feels like only locals should be weighing in.

Another person there to give public comment against the proposed curriculum was Cynthia Miller who said she’d driven in from Fernley, where she lives. She’s a member of the Republican Women of Reno.

“I don’t have children. I’m not a teacher, but I care about the future—the kids,” she said. “It just seems like every evil practice is coming out of the woodwork. Where’s God in all of this?”

On the other side of the lawn, University of Nevada, Reno, professor of human development and family science Melissa Burnham stood under a shade structure with a few other professors.

“We just started noticing this negativity around the social justice supplements to the curriculum. Last time, it was really, really negative—so, we wanted to amplify the positive,” Burnham said. “We have some students coming. We have people coming, actually, all day … We just want it to be science-based, evidence-based, research-based—and research-based [means] that children can and should know about differences and diversity and should start talking about it before kindergarten.”

Jenna Dewar is also a professor of human development.

“I’m partly here in that context, but, also, I wanted to be here as a concerned community member and future parent of a Washoe County School District student,” she said. “ I feel that the supplement is incredibly developmentally appropriate and opens up a lot of conversation that our students should be having and that our teachers are really well-equipped to be having with them.”

Trustees hear longest public comment period of 2021, so far

The first public comment period of the day was delayed several hours when the board moved to address two agenda items concerning hiring and technology purchasing first. This was so staff would not have to stay in the meeting through the expected hours of public comment.

Some of the first public commenters said they were upset by this and felt it was an attempt by the board to limit the number of people who could speak. Board President Angie Taylor noted that any discussion of the agenda item related to the social justice curriculum would not have taken place prior to 4 p.m. anyway.

Common themes among the comments were arguments about whether or not the proposed curriculum is indoctrination, whether it’s critical race theory and whether it’s age appropriate. 

Like Miller, who waited outside early to secure her place in the public comment queue, many suggested religion should be brought back into classrooms.

Special education teacher Kristen De Haan addressed calls to bring God back into the classroom during her own public comment, asking which God they preferred.

“If we get one, we get them all,” she said. “So that’s going to take place of some of the writing, some of the reading, some of the arithmetic—these ‘three R’s’ that only one of them starts with an ‘R.’”

UNR professor Jenna Dewar (right) provided public comment in support of social justice curriculum at the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees meeting June 8, 2021. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

Other teachers showed up to make comments, as did several elementary school principals. The principals of Greenbrae, Libby Booth and Glenn Duncan showed up in support of the curriculum. They said recent meetings have been hijacked by people opposed to the board and its policies.

Calen Evans, an educator and spokesperson for the group Empower Nevada Teachers, told the board that those in opposition to the social justice curriculum and other efforts by the district were displaying ignorance and perpetuating divisiveness but were only a “small, loud minority.”

In the case of this meeting, however, those in opposition were in no way the minority.

Bruce Foster, who spoke against the supplements and sex education, said the institutions of marriage and family are in a free fall.

“We all see that, don’t we?” he asked. “Birth rates meanwhile have plummeted below replacement levels across the West… Civilization is literally dying amid a cocktail of loveless sex, suicidal despair, drug abuse, pornography—which is huge—and sexual chaos thanks to the SHARE program.”

SHARE, which stands for Sex Health and Responsibility Education, is the district’s sex ed program.

“The effects on the individual are horrific, too,” Foster added. “Little brains are not designed to process sexual stimuli of any kind. Adding that, sex education is confusing and creates anxiety for any normal child—indeed, these stimuli rewire their brains as well as accommodate the new information—it also causes children to mimic the behaviors they’re exposed to, leading to addiction, to sexual stimuli.”

Val White—wife of Paul White, who often speaks during board meetings—said the trustees had taken an oath to defend the Constitution but were behaving like traitors. She called the social justice supplements a so-called Marxist, communist doctrine for K-5 students.

“Are there any hypocrites on this board? What about a self-identified Christian or assistant pastor who attempts to prohibit pro-life messages in the classroom while pushing BLM and homosexual messaging in classrooms,” White said, taking aim at Board President Angie Taylor. “There have been over 19 million Black babies murdered since 1973. Obviously, Black lives don’t mean much to you, Trustee Taylor. What about board trustees who approved a perverted sex ed curriculum that’s given information for how to safely lick an anus. Is that perverted enough or is that normal behavior for you?”

This Is Reno inquired with district staff to learn if such information is covered in its curriculum, since no references to it were found in reviewing the documents. WCSD officials said no.

White went on to say the proposed supplements are critical race theory regardless of what trustees say.

“If they told you that up is down and down is up, would you believe them?” she asked. “Apparently you would because you’re believing their lies about systemic racism and white privilege—about Blacks, homosexuals and females being prevented from achieving what whites and white males achieve. If the experts were truthful, you wouldn’t see a board with 29% of it held by Blacks in a community with only 2% Black. You wouldn’t see 14% or more held by homosexuals. You wouldn’t see 57% of the board held by females.”

Board members are elected by citizens unless appointed because of vacancies.

One woman named Karen England, who opposed the curriculum, went so far as to say that teachers should be required to wear body cameras in the classroom to prevent them from indoctrinating children. She sent a press release to this effect to local media.

Task force approved

Public comment didn’t wrap up until nearly midnight, after which board services coordinator J.J. Batchelder spent more than six minutes listing the names of those who’d sent in written public comment during the hours of live comment.

The board then took up its own discussion of the curriculum and the proposal to create a social justice task force rather than adopting it.

Several board members, including Vice President Andrew Caudill, who is soon resigning from his seat, said they were uncomfortable with Benchmark’s materials. Caudill said he felt they were not age appropriate and also were very negative in tone.

It was suggested that several secondary students would be a part of the proposed task force—albeit not as voting members. This was something that sparked outrage among many of the public commenters. It also drew skepticism from board members. Caudill said he felt including secondary students was out of line.

Trustee Jeff Church said he would prefer to see more parents recruited to the task force and fewer teachers. The task force will comprise five parents of elementary school students, one from each regular trustee district.

The task force will be appointed by Superintendent Kristen McNeill and may include up to 16 people. The board will learn of its composition during a future meeting.

Throughout conversation, the district’s Chief General Counsel, Neil Rombardo, warned the trustees several times that they were getting dangerously close to creating a public body that would be subject to open meeting law requirements—noting that they were welcome to, if that’s what they preferred.

The task force will not be subject to open meeting law, but the agendas and minutes from its meetings will be posted publicly for interested parties to review.

In the end, the board voted 6-1 to have the superintendent form a task force. Church voted against it, saying he did not feel comfortable with McNeill choosing the members of the task force.

The motion they passed directs McNeill to “move forward with a measured approach to providing supplementary curriculum based on the Nevada Academic Content Standards (NVACS) and involving stakeholders through the establishment of a Superintendent’s Task Force … to be brought back to the Board of Trustees with an update on progress at a future meeting.”

The task force is also ordered not to consider “divisive or political materials proposed by Benchmark,” and their final recommendations on the curriculum will be presented to the Board of Trustees for approval.

The meeting wrapped up in the early hours of Wednesday morning, more than 11 hours after it began. 

*Editor’s Note: Bev Stenehjem wrote food and drink columns for This Is Reno in 2020.

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.