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Schools find conspiracy theories interfere with making classrooms inclusive

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

School districts across the country are trying to make classrooms more inclusive. But misinformation is fueling fears of a hidden agenda, with baseless conspiracy theories being spread online, sometimes with the help of top elected leaders. We get a snapshot of how all this is playing out in one school district in upstate New York from reporter Zach Hirsch.

ZACH HIRSCH, BYLINE: Last summer, parents, teachers and school officials got together online and in person in Tupper Lake, N.Y. Nestled in the Adirondacks, it's a rural, mostly conservative place.

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LEE KYLER: Hi, everybody. I'm the guy who communicated with you in email, so thank you for volunteering to participate.

HIRSCH: That's administrator Lee Kyler. He's in charge of a committee formed by the local school board to draft a new policy on diversity, equity and inclusion. Twelve people volunteered to help, mostly parents.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMITTEE MEMBER #1: I'm retired, and I'm bored, so that's why I'm here (laughter).

KYLER: Thank you.

HIRSCH: New York is pushing all schools to develop equity policies. When the initiative launched last year, a press release said the country appears ready to address its long history of racism and bigotry. But even before their first meeting, the Tupper Lake committee got pushback. They're accused of trying to impose critical race theory, an academic framework taught in law schools and graduate programs. In conservative circles, that's become a shorthand for almost anything diversity-related in K-12 schools. Kyler said he felt like his job as committee chair was to fact-check and dispel misinformation.

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KYLER: Critical race theory is not at all on our agenda. It will not be adopted. It is not up for consideration. It has not been taught in our district. It will not be taught in our district.

HIRSCH: Kyler said the committee would look at a wide range of issues in school, not just race. But several people were skeptical. Resident David Hachey said at a public committee meeting that it doesn't matter what you call it, but there are a number of academics who want to fundamentally change this country.

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DAVID HACHEY: Don't let this program indoctrinate you and ultimately your children.

HIRSCH: NPR was unable to reach Hachey for comment. Kyler said there was constant suspicion about the committee's goals.

KYLER: And that became really exhausting. Every meeting started with me reiterating that we are not doing critical race theory.

HIRSCH: The town of Tupper Lake is more than 90% white, according to the latest census data, and everyone on the committee was white. Some of the parents said they had LGBTQ and mixed-race children in school. The residents who spoke out said diversity efforts in general are dividing people, making kids see differences that maybe hadn't even occurred to them before. They said conservative views are being discouraged in school, and that criticism wasn't just coming from the public.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMITTEE MEMBER #2: I feel like we're politicizing everything now.

HIRSCH: At a September meeting, there was continued pushback, including from people on the diversity committee. The Confederate battle flag was brought up, with some committee members arguing people who fly it might not intend to be hateful or racist. Historically, the symbol has represented slavery and white supremacist movements. A colleague had actually warned Kyler that critics were trying to infiltrate and sabotage the committee from within. But Kyler found the discussions fruitful, even from those new to diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

KYLER: I guess we didn't advertise it as you must be pro-DEI to serve on the committee, and I think it was nice to have that different viewpoint.

HIRSCH: But for months they kept getting stuck debating how much teachers should focus on students' emotional needs and whether their mission statement should include the words historically marginalized. Another big sticking point - whether conservative students should be considered a protected group. NPR tried to contact several people who felt that way. Those we were able to reach did not want to be interviewed. They worried about being misquoted or portrayed as ignorant. As all of this was happening, there was a powerful figure influencing the conversation.

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ELISE STEFANIK: I don't support the teachings of critical race theory.

HIRSCH: Elise Stefanik is a high-ranking Republican in Congress. She represents this area and has been one of the people amplifying conspiracy theories. Last year, her campaign posted ads baselessly accusing Democrats of planning an insurrection by supposedly granting amnesty to immigrants who will, quote, "overthrow our current electorate." The false claim closely resembled the white supremacist replacement theory, the racist notion that there is a plot to replace white voters with non-white immigrants. This spring, a white gunman opened fire in a Buffalo supermarket, killing 10 Black people. Prior to the shooting, he appears to have written about that same theory. Regardless, after the shooting, Stefanik doubled down and defended her campaign ads.

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STEFANIK: There is nothing racist about wanting a secure border, and in fact, people of all backgrounds agree with that position.

HIRSCH: Around the same time, Stefanik accused New York state of another conspiracy - using federal COVID funds to sneak critical race theory into schools. That claim originates from a Republican dark money group, and the state Education Department says it's patently false. But from Lee Kyler's perspective in Tupper Lake, the accusation gave people a template to push back against diversity initiatives.

KYLER: It's almost word for word. It seems like people are using that as their talking points.

HIRSCH: Stefanik's office did not respond to repeated interview requests. Ultimately, the diversity committee met its goal. They came up with a draft policy for the school. But the reference to historically marginalized groups didn't make the cut. They were working off another policy that was seven pages long. Tupper Lake's document was two pages long. Kyler says it's a good foundation to build on. I asked Kyler, does he feel like this is a story of a community coming together despite their differences, or is it the opposite?

KYLER: I think it's a little bit of both. I think no matter how hard we try, there's going to be detractors and naysayers and conspiracy theorists.

HIRSCH: Things did get pretty uncomfortable sometimes. At one point, Kyler had to tell critics from the public to email their comments instead of speaking in person because it was getting so aggressive and personal. But within the committee, he says, people with vastly different politics built relationships over several months and learned how to empathize, maybe just a tiny little bit, he says. That counts for a lot these days.

For NPR News, I'm Zach Hirsch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Zach Hirsch