Over 700 people have signed an online petition to allow discussions on race in the classroom after it was reported that excerpts from the book “White Fragility” were removed from a high school’s curriculum.
According to the change.org petition, an English teacher at Choctawhatchee High School in Fort Walton Beach was planning a lesson on racism — past and present — using excerpts from the 2018 book “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, a white academic with experience in diversity training.
When a parent made a complaint, the Okaloosa County School District backed the parent.
However, when Niceville parent Misti Schneidewind heard about the incident, she contacted her daughter, Hannah, who started the petition Wednesday.
When she was home from Northeastern University during the summer, Hannah was part of the students that helped facilitate four Black Lives Matter billboards around the city. Hannah said the petition may not do much but raise awareness, but that’s OK with her.
“Many people in our community are so uncomfortable with this topic,” said Hannah. “But it’s not just something you can shut down and ignore.”
As a parent of two former Okaloosa County School district students, Misti Schneidewind welcomed the idea of having the book discussed in a classroom.
“I think if we had more discussions like this, more of our best and brightest youth wouldn’t be so quick to get out of this area,” she said. “This is a great place to raise my kids. But there’s room for improvement.”
Misti also argued that one parent’s complaint shouldn’t affect the entire district.
The Okaloosa County School District has a policy on contested education materials. According to the policy, objections should be submitted through a Request for Review Media form. It then goes through a review process before a recommendation is brought to the superintendent who will forward a recommendation to the school board. The school board will decide the merits of the complaint after a public hearing.
Steve Horton, assistant superintendent of operational services for the School District, said schools’ English departments typically submit a reading list at the beginning of each school year, but “White Fragility” was not on the list.
“More importantly, the Florida Department of Education has established standards for each course in the public-school setting that define what students should be taught in that course,” he said in an email statement. “It is not apparent that this material aligned with the standards for the course. For both of these reasons, the text was removed from this classroom when the school’s administration became aware of its use.”
Horton addressed the past several months of protests that stemmed from the death of George Floyd and several other unarmed black men and women, and said the district “supports efforts to eliminate racism in all of its forms.”
“The School District supports student-led diversity groups that provide channels for ongoing dialogue about any number of issues, including race,” he said. “However, these are voluntary and not held during the school day at times set aside for required instruction.”
Last week, the American Library Association celebrated Banned Books Week. A total of 566 titles were challenged just last year. Betsy Gomez, Banned Books Week coordinator, said “White Fragility” has not been reported to ALA, while some other books that address race have appeared.
“It should be noted that a challenge to the book might have still happened, it just wasn't reported to ALA or other members of the Banned Books Week Coalition,” she said via email.
Similarly, Vicky Stever, coordinator with the Okaloosa County Public Library Cooperative, said there have been no complaints made about the book, which is in the county’s catalog.
Race is common theme for banned books, said Nora Pelizzari, director of communications for the National Coalition Against Censorship. Most of which are challenged for their use of “historically accurate language,” about racism such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship offers guidance in situations such as this to help create better resolutions and even help organizations and schools clarify their policies.
When it comes to conversations about race, the classroom could be a great opportunity for “robust discussion,” she argued.
“There’s no better place to encounter a difficult conversation about race than in a classroom to have the context and lessons that go with it,” Pelizzari said.
Pelizzari also points out that teaching a book is not an endorsement of the book or its themes. And removing the book doesn’t remove the conversation.
“It doesn’t mean the arguments (about race) disappear from public discourse,” she said. “But it prevents students from having those sociopolitical discussions.”