Cecil school board meeting becomes Critical Race Theory, transgender rights debate

Cecil County Superintendent Jeffrey Lawson speaks at a July 14 Board of Education meeting. Lawson that Critical Race Theory is not taught in schools.

ELKTON — On Wednesday, July 14, the Cecil County Public Schools board meeting exploded as protestors against the teaching of Critical Race Theory and allowing transgender people to use the facilities that aligned with their identity voiced their opinions to the board.

CCPS Superintendent Jeffrey Lawson said Critical Race Theory (CRT), a body of legal scholarship to examine how U.S law intersects with race, is not taught in schools. Critical Race Theory, an academic approach with over 40 years of history, argues that racism, rather than simply being a matter of individual prejudice, is ingrained in legal systems and policies. Some residents who oppose the teaching of CRT equate CCPS equity programs, such as the Cecil Youth Racial Equity Coalition with CRT instruction.

“I was surprised by the balance,” Superintendent Jeffrey Lawson said about the meeting. “I expected the perspective would have been strictly opposed to CRT and/or the transgender court ruling. That’s the beauty of our system, it’s a forum for people to voice their perspective.”

Jennifer Adams pointed to the Cecil Youth Racial Equity Coalition as something that divided students by race.

“I am disappointed that the people who are calling out groups of children based on skin color are the ones making decisions for our community,” Adams said. “Our children are individuals. They should be treated as individuals.”

Her thoughts were mirrored by other speakers who argued that referring to students as “black or brown students” was placing students into groups divided between oppressed and oppressors.

“My oldest son is darker than my wife. My youngest son is white and whiter then me,” said Michael Rosado, whose wife is Ecuadorian. “Which one’s the oppressor, which one is the oppressed.”

Cecil Solidarity President Christine Givens said children have an immense access to information through the internet, friends and parents, and will have conversations about race and the history of racism in America. At one point in Givens’ comment many of the attendees stood up and turned their back to her.

“When we send them to school, we also want them to continue to be taught things that will prepare them to have a better life,” said Givens. “This includes learning the truth about our nation in history class, and how to acknowledge what has happened for centuries, and what we can do to end racism and finally bring healing to our nation.”

In an interview before the meeting, Bohemia Manor teacher Beth Cronin, who helps run the Coalition said the group has not even brought up the issue of race, as the student-led group instead focused on issues surrounding gender identity and the disabled during its first two meetings.

“I do not equate those terms with only race,” Cronin said when asked about people putting equity and implicit bias under the umbrella of CRT. “We all have implicit bias. It does not make you racist to have implicit bias. What we do want students and adults to embrace, is the idea that we all have experiences that make us who we are.”

Cronin said CRT is an idea debated by legal scholars, not something included in the student group.

Lawson said a four year grant referred to by some speakers, provided by the National Institute of Justice and University of Maryland’s goal, is to administer disciplinary consequences outside of suspensions and better deal with students with behavior challenges, not race.

Lawson said Maryland state law requires the county to ensure education equity. CCPS must examine performance discrepancies that may exist based on disabilities, gender, poverty and race. If significant inequalities exist school funding may be withheld or redirected. Lawson said 2018 and 2020 Cecil County was found to have a large number of biracial students who were placed in school settings outside of the county, which forced CCPS redirect $500k from their budget.

The ability for transgender students to use the facilities that aligned with their gender identity was brought up throughout the night. Daylene Cecil focused on concerns about the comfort and safety of students, especially cisgender women.

“We are now going to have locker rooms full of girls, all over the state, uncomfortable and scared,” Cecil said.

Cecil County student Abigail McCullough said transgender students have not caused any problems by using the bathroom and that most of the problems around transgender access were created by the administration and parents, not from inter-student conflict.

“There has been more conflict from adult parents and administration backlash, than their own peers,” McCullough said. “Most of the students in question have formed relationships through people at the school.”

A 2018 study by UCLA found there was no relationship between trans-inclusive policies and reports of crime in bathrooms.

Supporters of transgender rights pointed to how an environment with less stigma would be beneficial to students, leading to better educational and mental health outcomes. Jessica Riedel, a parent of a transgender student in the school district and board member of the Cecil County LGBTQ+ Alliance said transgender students have always existed in schools and having them use the nurses office or another gender neutral restroom would force them to come out to their peers.

“As long as there have been schools there have been trans students who have attended those schools,” Riedel said. “Those students have been using bathrooms that match their gender identity without issue for just as long.”

The last speaker during public comment, David Neff, a 2013 Perryville High School graduate, came on the stage wearing a transgender flag. Neff cited scientific studies showing that gender is not an absolute binary, with intersex people and others who exist outside of the gender binary. Neff also said that the threat from transgender people was exaggerated.

“Your child is far safer inside a bathroom with a transgender person than they are in a church,” Neff said, prompting many people to leave the meeting.

The 4th Circuit Court of the United States in G.G vs. Gloucester County School Board established that transgender student has the legal right to use public school facilities that align with their gender identity. The ruling was based on Title IX federal civil rights law prohibiting sex based discrimination in any school or educational institution that receives federal funding.

Lawson said transgender students using a different restroom than their assigned biological gender involves lengthy conversations with the student, parents, counselors and staff. Gender neutral restrooms are also made available to the student.

“They’re barking up the wrong tree,” Edmund O’Meally, a lawyer representing the office of the superintendent said before the meeting. “Cecil County can’t unilaterally do something that the 4th Circuit Court already ruled on.”

O’Meally also said a supreme court decision last year affirming transgender employees have rights under title seven of the 1967 Civil Rights Act shows that transgender rights have been established by the courts.

“Putting aside personal opinions, philosophy, etc., we have to do what the court says we have to do,” O’Meally said. “And there’s really no arguments that can legitimately be raised around that.”

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