At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, Oyster River founded a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee dedicated to addressing racism and other forms of prejudice in our community. Like in many school districts across America, this committee was created partially because of the increased public awareness of the urgent need for societal change after George Floyd’s murder last spring.
Unfortunately, progress always seems to be accompanied by pushback. State legislatures across the country have approved bills intending to stop all recent progress in its tracks, and New Hampshire is no different. Embedded into our state budget is a section about the “Right to Freedom from Discrimination in Public Education.” Despite its misleading title, this law does nothing to prevent discrimination in public education. Instead, it does quite the opposite. Attempting to reverse recent advancements towards inclusion, the law restricts and limits how we can talk about issues in our country and severely threatens those who violate it.
The so-called “Right to Freedom” law includes language prohibiting professional trainings and lessons in public schools from teaching that members of any “age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, marital status, familial status, mental or physical disability, religion, or national origin” hold implicit biases against another given group. It also bans teaching that people in these groups should not treat one another equally or are incapable of treating each other with respect. This is not an idea taught anywhere, but the law is written so vaguely that it forces teachers to walk on eggshells to avoid misinterpretation of their classes. Perhaps the scariest part of the law is its punishment: if a teacher is found by the courts to have violated this law, they will lose their license to teach.
According to Oyster River superintendent Jim Morse, this direct threat to educators “sets a negative cloud over the teachers across New Hampshire, making them question whether they are teaching in defiance of the law.” He says before presenting a lesson, teachers must ask themselves, “does the law make sense to the instructional program they’ve put together? How does that all fit into teaching a genuine history of the United States?” Morse says this confusion is compounded by the fact that “the law itself is both specific and vague, and so it’s hard to navigate what it does and doesn’t mean.” The law has not been tested in court yet, so many educators are apprehensive about stepping too far outside of what has traditionally been taught, because nobody knows quite how far the law reaches.
That said, with the right precautions, it is possible this law won’t be as detrimental as many fear. ORHS social studies teacher Nate Grove says that he doesn’t believe his class will be affected very much by the law. He says that his classes, like the rest of his department, don’t push the idea that white people are to blame for everything. Instead, he encourages students to look at quotes and documents from history and then draw their own conclusions. He says, “If we have a problem, it’s likely because of misinterpretation or political maneuvering by outside groups in order to present or make a political point. So, I really don’t think we’re going to have an actual problem — though we may have a problem of inconvenience if someone decides that they just want to go after [teachers].”
Still, this problem of inconvenience that Grove describes could be devastating to the effort to make education across our district antiracist and inclusive. Even if they aren’t violating the law, teachers can’t control how their lessons are interpreted by students and their families. In countless conversations I’ve had as a student representative on the DEI committee, many teachers have confided to me that this law has deterred them from incorporating more social justice into their classrooms. While they do care about antiracism and teaching accurate history, teachers are fully aware of how rhetoric around laws like this has politicized social justice work. As a result, educators are scared of being brought to court over a misunderstanding — or worse, so someone can make a political point — and then losing their jobs. Many of the teachers who were already on the fence about this work have been dissuaded even further from learning more, because they don’t see this threat on their jobs as worth the effort of learning about how to incorporate DEI initiatives into their lessons.
Luckily, the ORCSD administration recognizes this issue, and is doing everything it can to support teachers. Morse has had several meetings with the district attorneys to try to understand exactly what teachers can and cannot do. The attorneys even spoke directly with Oyster River teachers at the beginning of this school year — something that has never been done before. This meant that teachers could hear firsthand what the law restricts in their classroom and how they can safely teach without violating it.
Morse has also provided guidance to teachers on how to respond to parents who wrongly believe they have broken the law. Part of this guidance includes encouraging teachers to write clear lesson plans which detail the goals of every class, which will hopefully help parents (and general courts, if it gets that far) understand that the intent of a class was education, and not indoctrination.
Nevertheless, the district can only do so much about protecting teachers when the law specifically restricts certain course content, namely the discussion of implicit bias. Also known as unconscious bias, implicit bias is a prejudice someone holds and acts on without consciously realizing that it exists. As a result of living in a prejudiced society, all people have implicit biases about each other. This isn’t saying we are bad people or are incapable of treating others with respect, it’s simply acknowledging that racism, sexism, and other forms of hostility towards certain groups are present in our society, and this has had an effect on our subconscious beliefs.
Understanding implicit bias is vital to understanding history. It is a key reason for why discrimination has existed and continues to exist in America, because it causes people to accept things as they always have been. If implicit biases go unrecognized, they can prevent us from seeing the wider causes and effects of societal issues. This is why the law is so scary: if we are not allowed to examine our blind spots, we will not be able to see the truth of our nation’s history. Our government is attempting to prevent us from learning about its failures using this law. Even though it claims that “nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit discussing, as part of a larger course of academic instruction, the historical existence of ideas and subjects identified in this section,” the law directly contradicts this by stopping us from learning perspectives which will help us examine history more clearly.
Additionally, Oyster River classes teach us that we are living history, but this law draws a hard line between past and present. How can we learn accurate history if we cannot also connect it to the present day? Banning discussion of a concept which is crucial to our understanding of racism and other discrimination in America prevents us from getting the best and most accurate education possible.
As students, it is our responsibility to fight back for the true and honest education we deserve. Grove says, “Anyone in this country really can speak up and speak out. There are protest marches, there are ways that students can organize petition campaigns, letter campaigns, email campaigns. Students can, of course, talk with adults, although I know that it can be scary. We’ve also seen where students have done it, in our country and in other countries, where they have younger people who don’t yet have the right to vote, but do have the opportunity to wield social and political clout.” In the face of racist and discriminatory laws, we have both the power and the obligation to protect our right to an accurate and all-inclusive education, so let’s take initiative and get involved to build a truly free education.