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More than 100 protest after Central board sinks race curriculum

A group of more than 100 people protested outside the Central York School District administration building Monday following the school board's failure to approve a social studies curriculum dealing with diversity and racism.

The board last month tabled a decision on a pilot curriculum after two members took issue with a resource list provided by the district's diversity committee and its depictions of race relations, white privilege and police.

Superintendent Michael Snell had clarified that this list was not part of the curriculum itself. The curriculum was completed before the diversity committee compiled its list of other reading materials.

Monday's protest occurred before the board's September meeting.

Ben Hodge — a Central high school theater teacher who helped organize the gathering of teachers, staff, students, alumni and residents — said the community loves, respects and values the district.

Ben Hodge, a Central York District teacher, speaks during a rally outside the Central York Educational Service Center Monday, Sept. 2020, to protest the school board's failure to approve a social studies curriculum dealing with diversity.
The 100-person rally coincided with the board's scheduled meeting. Bill Kalina photo

"It is because of this love that we feel we have the right and the duty to criticize and question our leadership on the issues of diversity," he said.

Those gathered in the field across from the administration building Monday held signs with message such as "This is not the Central we know" and "I teach empathy because we are human." 

The district has been celebrated for its forward thinking on diversity in the past. In fact, several students spoke Monday about the positive impact the district's diversity programming has had on them since its implementation in 2006.

But they are concerned things are moving in the other direction.

More:EDITORIAL: Central York board chooses to do nothing

"Your indifference to diversity, board members, is a step toward regression," said former district diversity education specialist Reuben Torres, in a statement read at the rally.

Delma Rivera, who took over Torres' position in 2006, said a speaker from the YWCA, who was to train teachers to facilitate difficult conversations with students on race and current events, even canceled her presentation because recent discussion among Central board members and residents did not align with that of other districts.

Several board members Monday night said they were disappointed in the cancellation.

Delma Rivera-Lytle, Central York School District diversity specialist, speaks at a rally outside the Central York Educational Service Center Monday, Sept. 2020, during a protest of the school board's failure to approve a social studies curriculum dealing with diversity. The 100-person rally coincided with the board's scheduled meeting. Bill Kalina photo

Board member Kyle King said he'd sought out conversations recently with people "who don't look like me, who don't think the same as me" and was shocked at many sharing the same concerns voiced 50 or 60 years ago.

"That’s sad in 2020 that we’re still having the same discussions regarding race and diversity," he said, and called the board to revote on the curriculum.

Board President Jane Johnson, however, made no such recommendation.

The Aug. 17 decision to table the matter came a week after board members Veronica Gemma and Vicki Guth criticized the list of resources, saying it was too focused on white privilege and racism and failed to acknowledge the value of police officers.

More:Central York board members: Racism curriculum fosters socialism, disrespect for police

More:Central York race curriculum appears dead following school board criticism

Both said it was inappropriate to be talking about these issues with children, with Gemma adding that children should not be viewed as “racist."

The curriculum would be tailored to students in grades K-12.

A district statement Aug. 11 stressed that comments from individual board members did not reflect the views of the board or district as a whole.

A MoveOn.org petition with more than 900 signatures as of Tuesday is calling for the resignation of Guth and Gemma.

"I am absolutely not against diversity. I don’t want the kids exposed to either of the extremes,” said Guth, when reached before the rally Monday, noting students would have difficulty in differentiating political ideologies from facts.

Melanie Webb, left, an instructional assistant in the district, and Michele Dobe, a Central York graduate, talk during a rally, Monday, Sept. 2020, outside the Central York Educational Service Center to protest the Central York School Board's stand on diversity education. The 100-person rally coincided with the board's scheduled meeting. Bill Kalina photo

The concept of Black Lives Matter — which, Guth said, she is not against — is different from the philosophy of the movement, which tends to demonize white students and assess blame rather than offering a strictly historical view of events, she said.

But many during Monday's public comment period and premeeting rally challenged the board to consider how history had been whitewashed.

A statement from the NAACP read at the rally noted that the organization in 2007 had called for scrutiny of textbooks for omissions and distortions of Black history. It called on the board to revisit its decision to table the curriculum.

Ultimately, the peaceful protesters urged people of color to run for the school board so that the 30% of the student population consisting of minorities would be represented.

"How do we have an all-white school board to represent a student body that has been more diverse by the year?" said high school senior Unique Fields.