PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Tensions have been rising at school board meetings across the Philadelphia region.
The debates center around diversity and freedom of speech for what some say are hate comments.
Critical Race Theory
"One of the big things is critical race theory," said Terry Madonna, a senior fellow for political affairs at Millersville University. "Mandates for masks. Mandates for vaccines (are also issues)."
Critical race theory is a study in academia based on the concepts of systemic and institutional racism. Systemic racism refers to how the government has discriminated against Black, Indigenous and other people of color through unjust policies concerning housing, employment, criminal justice, education and more.
Some residents are pushing for more diversity, equity and inclusion in schools. That includes Lela Casey, who attends the Central Bucks School District.
"We want to embrace our communities, our marginalized communities. All of the people who live here," Casey said.
Other residents are concerned over critical race theory and rumors of it being taught in schools.
"They paid a California company to come in and instruct teachers on how to incorporate CRT in the subjects they teach," said Michael McTiernan of what he heard about the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District.
McTiernan says the district has no identifiable courses under the critical race theory label.
He accuses CRT curriculum of being too divisive because he believes it will teach white children that they are the oppressors and Black children that they are oppressed.
"Everybody wants the same thing: a school with no prejudice. We oppose the way they're trying to make that happen," said McTiernan.
Casey has her own theory about how the issue of CRT became so hotly debated even in school districts that aren't teaching it.
"I really believe it's a manufactured controversy by the right to attack our public schools, creating these false narratives, false divisions," Casey said.
Madonna says, while Republicans benefit from the debate, he doesn't think they created it.
"I don't think it's so much Republicans are leading the charge, they may be happy that it's taking place," Madonna said.
Casey was one of a large number of people expected at the Central Bucks School Board meeting Monday night.
School Board's Stance
Interest in the meeting grew after a previous meeting included public comment by residents that some in the audience said was hate speech against Jewish and Transgender people.
Casey tried to interrupt the commenters, but school board members allowed the controversial comments to continue, citing freedom of speech.
As news of the controversial comments spread, four out of nine school board members signed a statement saying that while they support free speech, "We do not support this inflammatory speech, nor do we believe it reflects the values of the Central Bucks School District or the community."
The board members who signed the statement were Karen Smith, Tracy Suits, Lorraine Scuito-Ballasy and Jodi Schwartz. School board members Dana Hunter, Leigh Vlasblom, Dan Ring, Bob Farley and Sharon Collopy declined to sign the document.
In the month since the incident, parents have been galvanized to speak out.
"I've been to many, many meetings and sat through so many offensive things," said Casey. "We have to be there for each other. We have to stand up for each other because this hate will spread through our community."
The Central Bucks School District is expected to swear in five new members, making the board lean heavily right with six Republicans and three Democrats.
Concern Over Educational Group
During public comment at Monday night's Tredyffrin/Easttown School Board meeting, residents and parents stressed their concerns specifically about the district's contract with the company Pacific Educational Group.
"I believe you made a mistake by hiring Pacific Educational Group, PEG. Their views and materials are racist and destructive," said one parent in attendance.
"I think what the issue is with the community is not that you want to have these initiatives and this work to go on, it's the way in which it has been chosen to be acted upon," said another parent.
While most agree their students and community need to be brought together, they say it shouldn't be done with Pacific Educational Group.
"PEG articulates racist viewpoints and deserves no place whatsoever in our schools. The $400,000 spent on these programs has been a waste," said one man.
A school district spokesperson referred Action News to its website and its District Equity Statement. Part of it states, "Since 2018 the T/E School District has been working with the Pacific Educational Group (PEG) to develop and implement racial equity measures in our school community. Our goal is foundational and transformative change."
The equity statement says the district's work with Pacific Educational Group is about the development of a racially and culturally diverse faculty, administration, and staff.
It also says they practice inclusive, culturally responsive, and anti-racist curriculum and instruction at all grade levels.
Madonna says school boards are becoming increasingly political. He doesn't see the debates ending any time soon but he urges civility.
"People have a right to go to school board meetings and express their concern, but there's a way to do that and a way not to do that," Madonna said.