Okaloosa School Board Hears Public Comments About 'White Fragility'

Oct 13, 2020

Choctawhatchee High School Principal addresses the removal of the book "White Fragility" from a high school English class at Monday night's school board meeting.

A handful of community members spoke at the Okaloosa County School Board meeting Monday night addressing the removal of the novel “White Fragility” from a high school English class.

News spread of the book’s removal through an online petition that now has about 1,400 signatures. It explains that the 2018 best-selling novel “White Fragility” was removed from a high school level English class lesson plan after a parent complained. The School District confirmed the story in an email statement last week saying “it was not apparent that the material aligned with the standards for the course.”

Superintendent Marcus Chambers was quick to praise the Choctawhatchee High School teacher saying she was an “absolutely fantastic” and “passionate” educator at the meeting. The issue, he said, appeared that the book had not gone through the school’s process. 

“When you go into a novel that’s not on the school’s already predetermined list, it is extremely important you have an instructional plan in place already and you go through the school’s process,” Chambers said. “And in this case, from what has been reported to me, that did not happen.”

Choctawhatchee High School Principal Michelle Heck explained that the school had a process, regardless of department or content that starts with a teacher explaining the rationale behind adding material to curriculum. 

“Another part of it is, understanding what will the learning plan look like? The entire learning plan,” said Heck. “We’re looking at instructionally speaking … what will be the learning activities, what will the discussions be based around, what do we hope to accomplish with our students?”

Criteria administrators look at new material to see if it includes profanity, treatment of sex, violence and passages or themes that could be objectionable or controversial. Heck also said the school has an obligation to let parents know what their child is learning about.  

Those who spoke at Monday’s meeting said they welcomed the book and subsequent discussion into the high school classroom. 

“We are missing an opportunity — at a critical moment in history — where the rest of the nation is really talking about issues of race, equity, diversity, and inclusion,” said Dr. Gregory Seaton at the meeting. “We can lean into this and be leaders in this area.”

As a minority in the Okaloosa County School District, Kimberly Davidison Woods recalled the required reading she had. Books such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which use derogatory language, were all part of her English curriculum. 

"It seems the N-word really doesn't bother anybody but the people that it is directed towards. This is part of that white fragility we're talking about," she said. 

Local activist Sonya Vasquez lamented that one parent’s complaint shouldn’t bar an entire classroom from reading the novel. 

“There’s a lot we’re all still learning about racism,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair to the other kids. We can’t deny that racism doesn’t exist; we can’t deny that discrimination doesn’t exist. It’s here and it’s getting worse.” 

Heck agreed with public comments that classrooms could be a good setting for students to have difficult conversations about racism. 

It’s not something to “shy away from,” she said. 

“Schools are where we want kids to face hard conversations and think about critically topics,” she said. “We don’t want kids to be told what to think, we want them to be prepared on how to think and how to make the best decisions for them. The topic of racism absolutely needs to be discussed in our community and our nation.” 

Currently, the issue is not a district matter “in essence,” said Superintendent Chambers Tuesday afternoon.  

“The school needs to go through their process,” he said. 

The teacher has the opportunity to submit “White Fragility” through the proper channels at the school, which was the suggestion of School Board member Dewey Destin. He also said he would read the book for himself. 

“I think this is an issue that should be looked in to,” he said. “Censorship goes down the wrong road almost always.”