(Editor’s note: The following is a Feb. 6, 2023 letter, published here in its entirety, sent to Dr. Alex Marrero, Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, as well as the elected members of the board of education.)
Dear Dr. Marrero:
I am an attorney at the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism (FAIR), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing civil rights and promoting a common culture based on fairness, understanding, and humanity. Our website, fairforall.org, can give you a fuller sense of our identity and activities.
I write regarding the Black Lives Matter at School Action Week curriculum (the “Action Week Curriculum”). As advocates of pro-human anti-racism, FAIR supports efforts to bring communities together by teaching historically accurate lessons about America’s founding principles, how our country has often fallen short of them, and the progress we have made consistent with those principles. We understand your district has resolved to adopt and teach the Action Week Curriculum, beginning Feb. 6. The Action Week Curriculum includes several elements that are based on ideological viewpoints with which reasonable minds can and do disagree. In order to best honor the First Amendment rights of your students, we urge you to incorporate other curricula that offer different perspectives on the topics covered by the Action Week Curriculum.
School boards enjoy broad discretion in determining the content of public school curriculum, and the Supreme Court has provided helpful guidance on the constitutional considerations to be made when exercising that discretion. See West Virginia Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 637 (1943) (“Boards of education … have, of course, important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions, but none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights.”). This discretion, in concert with our democratic system, is what makes it possible for our public school systems to properly reflect the values held by a given community. When public schools teach students about important topics such as historical and present-day discrimination, efforts toward unity, and freedom for all, one ideologically-charged viewpoint should not serve as the sole basis of information. For example, it would be inappropriate and irresponsible for a public school district to only offer a history curriculum that simply teaches that Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and ignores or underplays the history of slavery in America and the Jim Crow South. It would be similarly inappropriate for a public school district to only offer a civics curriculum that teaches that America’s legal system is designed to oppress certain groups of citizens based on their skin color. Each of these is an example of an ideologically-based curriculum. Since your district has chosen to teach lessons based on the Action Week Curriculum, we urge you to also simultaneously teach lessons based on divergent viewpoints.
The Black Lives Matter at School website features several different resources, including the “Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action Starter Kit.” The “Introduction to the BLM in School Week of Action” states, in part, that:
- “[T]here is a school-to-prison-pipeline system that is more invested in locking up youth than unlocking their minds.”
- “That system uses harsh discipline policies that push Black students out of schools at disproportionate rates”;
- The system “denies students the right to learn about their own cultures and whitewashes the curriculum to exclude many of the struggles and contributions of Black people and other people of color”; and
- The system “is pushing out Black teachers from the schools in cities from around the country.”
The Action Week Curriculum is broken down into sections and assigned throughout the days of Action Week:
- Monday: Restorative Justice, Empathy, and Loving Engagement
- Tuesday: Diversity and Globalism
- Wednesday: Trans-Affirming, Queer Affirming, and Collective Value
- Thursday: Intergenerational, Black Families, and Black Villages
- Friday: Black Women and Unapologetically Black
The above sections are based on the Black Lives Matter 13 Guiding Principles. “[Black Lives Matter] seek[s] to expand student understanding of these principles through the week of action.”
The Guiding Principles are:
1. Restorative Justice– We are committed to collectively, lovingly, and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension, all people. As we forge our path, we intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.
2. Empathy– We are committed to practicing empathy; we engage comrades with the intent to learn about and connect with their contexts.
3. Loving Engagement– We are committed to embodying and practicing justice, liberation, and peace in our engagements with one another.
4. Diversity– We are committed to acknowledging, respecting, and celebrating difference(s) and commonalities.
5. Globalism– We see ourselves as part of the global Black family and we are aware of the different ways we are impacted or privileged as Black folk who exist in different parts of the world.
6. Queer Affirming– We are committed to fostering a queer-affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking or, rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual unless s/he or they disclose otherwise.
7. Trans Affirming– We are committed to embracing and making space for trans siblings to participate and lead. We are committed to being self-reflexive and doing the work required to dismantle cis-gender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.
8. Collective Value– We are guided by the fact all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status or location.
9. Intergenerational– We are committed to fostering an intergenerational and communal network free from ageism. We believe that all people, regardless of age, show up with capacity to lead and learn.
10. Black Families– We are committed to making our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We are committed to dismantling the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work “double shifts” that require them to mother in private even as they participate in justice work.
11. Black Villages- We are committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, and especially “our” children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable.
12. Unapologetically Black– We are unapologetically Black in our positioning. In affirming that Black Lives Matter, we need not qualify our position. To love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a necessary prerequisite for wanting the same for others.
13. Black Women– We are committed to building a Black women affirming space free from sexism, misogyny, and male-centeredness.
The 13 Guiding Principles makes clear that the Action Week Curriculum is based on a set of particular values, beliefs, and ideas. While the Principles emphasize certain widely-held values such as empathy, justice, and diversity, they also advance, as factual truth, various matters of opinion and belief. For example, some may genuinely feel that they live under a “tight grip of heteronormative thinking,” but that is merely an individual belief, and one that others will not hold. Similarly, some individuals may feel they are part of “the global Black family,” but others may not agree that they are assigned to a global family on the basis of their skin color. In teaching the Action Week Curriculum, schools inevitably advance a specific set of beliefs, which can only be responsibly conveyed if the schools also simultaneously teach about diverging sets of beliefs.
The First Amendment’s free speech guarantees are critically important to students attending their local public school in accordance with America’s compulsory education laws. The Supreme Court has recognized time and time again that “public schools are vitally important ‘in the preparation of individuals for participation as citizens,’ and as vehicles for ‘inculcating fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system.’” Board of Educ., Island Trees Union Free School Dist. No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 864 (1982) citing Ambach v. Norwick, 441 U.S. 68, 76-77, 99 (1979). It is not enough for public schools to uphold First Amendment freedoms by allowing their students to speak and express themselves freely. Schools must also allow their students to freely receive information and ideas. Indeed, “the State may not, consistently with the spirit of the First Amendment, contract the spectrum of available knowledge.” Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 557, 564 (1965) (noting that free speech rights in the educational setting are a critical underpinning of other constitutional rights, such as 14th Amendment privacy rights). Instead, “local school boards must discharge their ‘important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions’ within the limits and constraints of the First Amendment.’” Pico at 865 (holding that the First Amendment prohibits public school boards from removing library books in an effort to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion”), citing Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist., 393, U.S. 503, 506 (1969) (holding that public school students’ free expression rights cannot be abridged unless the school can prove that such expression would materially and substantially interfere with the operation of the school). The relevant body of Supreme Court case law makes it clear that public schools hold significant discretion in choosing curriculum, and that such discretion must be exercised in a way that honors the First Amendment rights of students.
The purpose of education is to equip students with the tools necessary to think critically. This is done by fostering open inquiry and presenting different perspectives on any given topic. This process provides students with necessary information they can use to debate the veracity of claims. The Action Week Curriculum, when taught without diverging viewpoints, limits students’ understanding of several important topics to a narrow band of viewpoints.
Imbalance of views risks another consequence: student self-censoring. Social conformity is common among adolescents; within school, such pressure is compounded by the teacher’s position of authority and control. If classroom teachings overwhelmingly endorse a certain viewpoint, voicing disagreement can be daunting for an adolescent. Many will calculate that it is not worth the risk and either say nothing or feign agreement. In a survey of 250 high school students in New York City, sixty percent felt they could not express their opinion because of how the teacher, other students, or school administrators would respond. Sam Abrams, et al., “Survey on the Status of Freedom of Expression in NYC High Schools” (NEXT GEN. POLITICS 2021).
If you have not done so already, we urge you to adopt curricula and teaching materials that incorporate viewpoints not found in the Action Week Curriculum. Doing so creates and maintains an environment in which students feel confident asserting opinions that others may not share, and it best prepares students to think critically about prevalent current and historical issues. It also demonstrates the responsible discharge of your duties in accordance with your students’ Constitutional rights.
Very truly yours,
Leigh Ann O’Neill
Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism
Our unofficial motto at Complete Colorado is “Always free, never fake, ” but annoyingly enough, our reporters, columnists and staff all want to be paid in actual US dollars rather than our preferred currency of pats on the back and a muttered kind word. Fact is that there’s an entire staff working every day to bring you the most timely and relevant political news (updated twice daily) from around the state on Complete’s main page aggregator, as well as top-notch original reporting and commentary on Page Two.
CLICK HERE TO LADLE A LITTLE GRAVY ON THE CREW AT COMPLETE COLORADO. You’ll be giving to the Independence Institute, the not-for-profit publisher of Complete Colorado, which makes your donation tax deductible. But rest assured that your giving will go specifically to the Complete Colorado news operation. Thanks for being a Complete Colorado reader, keep coming back.