DOWNINGTOWN, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- Along with the use of the masks for students next year, the Downingtown Area School District's relatively new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program was one of the topics discussed at Wednesday night's school board meeting.
When someone forwarded Brandyn Campbell a petition calling for the end of diversity programs in her child's school district, she felt hurt and disappointed.
"It made my stomach sink, honestly," she said.
The petition, titled "NLTE DASD Petition for the Removal of the DEI Program at DASD." Among other things, it accuses the school board of being unable to explain how equity is defined and applied, and alleges that the school board skipped those steps when it hired a director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
"I think it's a response to the fact that our country is changing," said Campbell, a parent in the district who also works with the nonprofit group Chester County Marching Forward. "The small minority of people who are displeased about something are making the most noise."
The petition has received 254 signatures as of late Wednesday afternoon, but the issue of diversity, equity and inclusion in Downingtown Schools has garnered many more comments on the district's Facebook page. Some of it comes from parents praising the program. Other comments come from people who accuse it of being wrong and connected to Critical Race Theory, which opponents like the Pennsylvania Family Institute say is divisive.
Critical Race Theory is a complex framework that examines how U.S. law intersects with race. It is more likely to be found in law school than in an elementary classroom. Still, some Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers are seeking to ban it in schools.
"Why are we teaching white children that they will always be oppressors and they need to apologize or repent for their whiteness," said Cheryl Allen, who serves as an attorney for the Pennsylvania Family Institute and says CRT puts white and Black people into two categories: the oppressors and the oppressed. "It will serve to divide, deconstruct, dismantle and destroy the system as we know it."
Campbell disagrees with that notion.
"My children are biracial. They are black and white. There's no way I would want my children to think that half of who they are is inherently bad, and half of who they are is inherently weak," said Campbell.
Opponents commenting in the Downingtown district allege CRT is already part of the district's curriculum. District officials say that's not true.
"We are not teaching Critical Race Theory in our schools," said Jennifer Shealy, director of communications for the Downingtown Area School District. "In our school schools, what we're teaching is kindness, compassion, understanding, empathy and listening."
In response to the petition, Campbell asked parents who support diversity efforts to show up for Wednesday night's school board meeting for public comment. Hundreds did.
"The way it's being implemented is racist, you can't deny it," said one parent.
One sticking point for people who insist the district is already teaching CRT is a list of books that the district put out as a resource for parents who want to discuss race with their children. The district says that list isn't required or even recommended reading. It's just there as a resource for parents seeking materials to discuss race with their children.
The district has put more effort into DEI, which sometimes comes through conversations with students.
"I went to Downingtown Area School District and I didn't think there were many diversity issues when I was here, but coming into this position, when I started hearing some of the stories that happened to students, it was heartbreaking," said Shealy.
We asked parent Henry Luu if he thought CRT was being implemented in the district's curriculum.
"Oh absolutely," said Luu.
But board members said at the meeting they're not teaching CRT but rather inclusion.
"If there were no prejudice in the Downingtown Area School District I would rejoice. But because this not so, it would be inappropriate for me as a school board director to not act in the best interests of the students in the district," said Downingtown School Board Director LeeAnn Wisdom.
Several parents said they applaud the district's efforts of inclusion.
"It's my strong opinion that it's important to talk about issues that maybe are uncomfortable," said Campbell.
"It helps our students learn better. It challenges them," said parent Adam Fontecchio.
As far as the future of the DEI program, despite there being a lot of discussion, there was no decision by the board at the meeting.
The school board also discussed the school's health and safety plan ahead of the upcoming school year. The board voted to follow the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's guidance once it is revealed.