Tampa Bay teachers seek protections from ‘critical race theory’ accusations

They don’t want to be punished for presenting historical fact if a student or parent objects.
Activist Ben Frazier, left, is asked to leave after shouting chants of "Allow teachers to teach the truth" during a June 10 State Board of Education meeting, where members banned critical race theory from Florida schools.
Activist Ben Frazier, left, is asked to leave after shouting chants of "Allow teachers to teach the truth" during a June 10 State Board of Education meeting, where members banned critical race theory from Florida schools.
Published July 23, 2021|Updated Sept. 24, 2021

Teachers across the Tampa Bay area want the public to know they don’t teach “critical race theory.”

It’s not part of the state’s academic standards or district curriculum, several note. When teaching United States history and civics, including about issues such as slavery and civil rights, they focus on facts, not opinions.

Yet they fully expect, at some point this school year, to be accused of indoctrinating children about race. The lines already have been drawn by state officials who rewrote administrative rules and guidelines while making allegations that some educators are teaching children that white people are inherently racist.

Related: Florida education board votes to keep critical race theory out of schools

“I have emailed the district asking them what they plan to do if they receive a complaint. I should say, when they receive a complaint,” said Nancy Velardi, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Velardi said she’s hearing from Pinellas teachers who are worried that classroom conversations about key aspects of U.S. history might be recorded and taken out of context by students or parents who attach the label “critical race theory” when what really was happening was critical analysis of past events.

She is calling on the district to protect faculty members from unfounded allegations.

Related: What is critical race theory, and why are conservatives blocking it?

A district spokeswoman said the issue has not come up for formal discussion. School Board chairwoman Carol Cook said she hoped not to make the issue any bigger than it already has become.

“They’re not teaching it,” Cook said. If a proven allegation arises, she added, “we’ll treat them the same way as a teacher who goes deeper on sex education than they’re supposed to.”

Critical race theory is a broad and still-evolving set of ideas based on the notion that efforts through American history to systematically discriminate based on race continue to impact people of color and still exist in many forms, despite anti-discrimination laws.

It is sometimes discussed at the college level, but generally not in K-12 education.

Proponents say the topic brings forth a truer picture of U.S. history when it comes to race. Critics contend it’s divisive.

Some have confused “critical race theory” with a widely used education strategy known as “culturally relevant teaching,” which seeks to better engage students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The confusion may arise because both are often referred to by the acronym CRT.

Rob Kriete, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, said he hoped not to have to engage his district administration on this issue. He shared Cook’s perspective that there’s nothing to see.

“The standards are being controlled by the governor and the Legislature at this point,” Kriete said. “Our teachers will continue to do what they’ve been asked to do, with fidelity. We almost feel like it’s a non-issue.”

He noted that the materials the schools use for teaching these historical lessons, which are required by law, are vetted by the state before they come to districts for adoption.

“We maintain that they’re in charge of the integrity of the curriculum,” he said. “We deliver it to the kids in the best possible way.”

Such assertions do not guarantee parents will be convinced.

At a recent Pasco County School Board meeting, two parents admonished the district about their concerns that materials that include “critical race theory” might be purchased.

“Teaching children hate vs. love is absolutely wrong,” said Kathy Riley of Zephyrhills, as she complained about district curriculum that she said tells students to hate white people.

The comments prompted deputy superintendent Ray Gadd to stress that Pasco schools, like other districts, do not teach “critical race theory” and instead adhere to state-approved standards and materials.

That said, Gadd added, if the parents have specific examples, they should bring them forward for a review.

“We haven’t found it and when we talked to people in the Department of Education, they haven’t either,” he said.

United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace said he expected the district to stand by teachers and the “academic freedom” section of their contract if accusations arise. It provides that “no arbitrary limitations shall be placed upon study, investigation, presentation, and interpretation of facts and ideas” except as affected by laws, regulations, curriculum requirements, and children’s educational development.

Peace planned to look into whether other contractual protections might be helpful.

District employee relations supervisor Nora Light, lead negotiator on the teacher contract, said she did not see a need. The district would review complaints, she said, and if valid the teacher would be coached on how to teach the topics without inserting personal opinions.

“The teacher leads the discussion. The teacher facilitates,” Light said. “We will provide support to help them navigate those waters.”

State officials used similar language in suggesting that the rule, as rewritten, provides a clear framework for teachers to follow while leading lessons on potentially controversial topics and allowing students to think for themselves.

The change “creates a logical means for a great teachers to defend their actions if ever falsely accused,” Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said in an email explaining the rule, before it was officially adopted.

Velardi said she wanted to believe teachers would not face trouble for doing their job.

“They should be okay,” she said. “I just want to make sure that is the case.”