The sharp edge of free speech was felt as protesters and counter-protesters voiced opposite perspectives on two new classes proposed for South Whidbey High School this fall.
Nearly 60 protesters gathered in front of the high school June 11 to speak against new ethnic studies and environmental science classes this autumn, along with a continuing sexual education class. They were met in counter protest by more than 300 students and community members who favored expansion of class content to include discussion of social justice, systemic racism, and climate change.
Students from the United Student Leaders — USL — organized the counter protest, “Stand up for Education: Support Student Voices,” led by USL founders Maggie Nattress and Annie Philp.
Founded in 2019, USL is student-led and is focused on social justice and climate change issues. USL presented a climate emergency declaration to the Langley City Council last May, which the council accepted and passed. USL had worked for more than a year on addressing climate change. The student-led demand for new ethnic studies and environmental science curriculum resulted in district approval in January of this year of two new courses beginning in September.
Last Friday, protesters carried signs, which read, “No comprehensive sexual education,” “Say no to cancel culture,” “Education, not indoctrination,” and Critical Race Theory = Racism and Hate.”
Critical Race Theory is not taught at South Whidbey High School. The now-hot-button term is used these days by opponents to teaching cultural identity classes. There is a belief that expanding curriculum to include race studies is the same as white bashing.
Brook Willeford, school board director and board chair of the South Whidbey school district, emailed with the district’s take on its expanded curriculum and its ongoing classes on sex education:
“Thank you for contacting me about CRT and the upcoming curriculum at the South Whidbey School District. I’m responding on behalf of the board in my role as board chair. Critical Race Theory is a theory about how the law is impacted by systemic racism, and is rarely taught below graduate level classes. To my knowledge, it is not part of any curriculum at South Whidbey School District. The ethnic studies course starting up this Fall at South Whidbey High School will help our scholars come to understand their own culture as well as the cultures of those around them. It fits neatly with our equity work across the school district, which is about recognizing and removing systemic barriers to education in front of scholars of many marginalized groups, not just people of color. There is no intention to shame anyone or to suggest that anyone is either evil or a victim due to their skin color. At the same time, we will not be asking our teachers to censor their age-appropriate lessons because the truth about history might make someone feel uncomfortable.
“The ethnic studies class is one of two new classes being added to the high school in response to requests by our own scholars and state requirements — the other is an environmental sciences class with a strong focus on sustainability and the impact of humans on the climate. The administration, staff, community, and scholars came together in committee to put in hard work on building a framework for the curriculum of each of these two classes, and the board is very proud of the result.
“There have also been some questions about the district’s comprehensive sexual education program lately — we have not changed our curriculum in several years, because what we have been providing for some time was already in accordance with the recent updates to legal requirements. For those interested in investigating it themselves, it is the FLASH curriculum, also used by Seattle Public Schools and other districts. Pre-5th Grade, it focuses on body autonomy and giving and waiting for consent for things like hugs. At 5th Grade, it adds human development and puberty. One part of the curriculum is directly and honestly answering student questions, but the focus is on safety and understanding their own body.”
It was the students who approached the school to expand its curriculum, said Eva Wirth, the media contact for United Student Leaders. “We’re here to support the curriculum,” she said as students and community members readied themselves to meet the protesters lined up on Maxwelton Road with signs. Sheriffs deputies stood at the ready.
There was some yelling by one woman at the students and their supporters, but a USL student announced through a bullhorn, “Do not engage with the other side.”
The ‘other side’ included a young man, 17, home-schooled, of Black heritage. He carried a sign that read: “Help Me! I need an education not indoctrination.”
In interviewing a number of the protesters and counter-protesters, I felt the power of humanity, even though there were opposite opinions being expressed.
Take for instance, a conversation with Dave Matthews, whose daughter is now 25. “She got out before being brainwashed by the lefties,” he said. He carried a sign which read: “Just say no to C.R.T.” While those words could cause sparks, it was his point of view, just as the opposite perspective was. A teachable moment.
I spoke with Clyde Monma, long known in the community for his work with students. His sign read in vertical letters: DIVERSITY — Different Individuals Value Each Other Regardless of Skin or Sex, Intellect, Talent, Skills, or Years. “My wife Marcia Monma made this sign,” he said.
One of the protesters, Lanny Shelley, said: “I wouldn’t bring my kids here. (In sex ed classes) they teach by putting condoms on bananas.”
Claire Moore stood with her family and friends with the counter-protesters. She said, “It is good to be here. It is energizing to be doing something concrete.”
Energy at the event was charged. A protesting woman twirling a rainbow banner walked down the middle of Maxwelton Road, shouting: “Real equality needs the Constitution!” Later I exchanged eye contact with her and felt the power of human connection that rose above the harshly spoken words like oboe notes in a symphony. We were present with one another in that moment.
Counter-protesting USL students with bullhorns led their group in call and response chants such as, “Show me what democracy looks like.” And the counter-protest crowd would shout: “This is what democracy looks like.”
The crowd energies crackled and popped with voices speaking their truths, expressing opposite viewpoints. Some called for unity. Some came to support the students.
Retired Langley Library employee Cynthia Kaul joined in with the counter protesters. She said, “Education is for the future; it’s not us against them. I am for teaching truth and justice. We’re all one. We have to find a bridge.”
In order to build a bridge following the May 2020 George Floyd killing and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement, the South Whidbey School District posted a letter regarding its decision to create classes that expanded teaching about equity and climate change. In addition, the school has created a Social/Emotional learning curriculum to raise awareness about race.
An excerpt from the letter citing examples of what will be taught: “Within our classrooms, our teachers have been diligently reviewing their curriculum using the lens of equity. This includes instructional methodology and materials. For example, our American Literature course discusses Thoreau’s concept of Civil Disobedience and Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham jail.”
Following the June 11 counter protest, the USL posted on its Facebook page: “Yesterday (June 11) USL held a counter-protest to support some of the updates our school, specifically the new environmental science and ethnic studies classes, and comprehensive sex ed curriculum.
“We are happy to say there were around 360 people who showed up to support us, with around 160 students and 200 community members, vastly outnumbering the opposition. Thank you to everyone who attended!
“We held this counter-protest because it was mainly students who prompted these changes, so we feel like it’s our responsibility to defend them. We’re happy that our district is making progress in being a more inclusive place for its students, and this new curriculum is the next step toward that goal.”