Teaching about race and racism in public schools has become another flashpoint in the intensifying debate about how history and current events are interpreted in the classroom.
Long Island teachers said they feel under siege when they teach such topics, with some watching their words in class — or shying away from discussions on "critical race theory," "systemic racism" and "white privilege."
On the opposite side, some parents worry that teachers are injecting their personal and political beliefs into lessons.
"Some teachers are nervous — not because they are doing something wrong, but because some people are trying to make it seem like they’re doing wrong," said Richard Haase, an English teacher at Candlewood Middle School in Dix Hills and head of the Half Hollow Hills district's teachers union.
New York State establishes broad standards for education, allowing school districts and their boards of education to set and approve curriculum. The districts also choose the textbooks used in classrooms, said J.P. O'Hare, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
What to know
Teaching about race and racism has become charged with strong disagreements between those who want more instruction on diversity, equity and inclusion, and others who call such teaching biased.
Some teachers are watching their words in class, or even shying away from controversial topics.
Even as educators push to discuss more about race and racism, some conservatives are pushing back, asserting that these efforts are an attempt to immerse students in politically slanted values.
Long Island, which has 124 school districts, can theoretically have 124 different approaches to fulfilling state standards, said Alan Singer, a Hofstra University professor of education. Beyond that, individual teachers also can choose which books they focus on, he said.
Teaching about race "varies widely," Singer said. "The state guidelines say you need to learn about Malcolm X, but it doesn't say what you need to learn."
The word "racism" does not appear in state standards for grades kindergarten through 12th grade, Singer said. The word "race" appears at the 12th-grade level with the examination of civil rights, he said.
The race debate has intensified across the country since George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in 2020 by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund police departments followed across the country.
Some teachers have been called out about their classroom discussions on race since Floyd's death. And some parents have protested at school board meetings, fuming over what they see as classroom discussions that shame white students.
The Smithtown district restricted the use of several instructional videos that deal with race, sexuality and violence. The Commack district removed the novel "Persepolis" — about an Iranian girl’s coming of age — from its required reading list.
Jennifer Roman, a West Babylon mother with three children in the school system, said she believes schools are teaching students to focus on their differences, not what they have in common.
"Do I believe they are teaching unity? I do not," Roman said. "They are forcing them to focus on what color that person is, what sexual orientation that person is. I don't believe they are teaching them to come together as a community."
Some other parents, including Mimi Hu, of Great Neck, said they trust the teachers.
Hu, who has a son in fourth grade, said she has faith in teachers to present the right material. She worries that the parental interference smacks of an attempt at censorship.
"I believe [the teachers] have the best interests of the students," she said.
Some districts have been accused of teaching critical race theory, which originally was an approach to understanding the impact of race and racism on the American legal system. In recent decades, it has been adopted by social scientists and historians as a tool for explaining the racial differences in income, education, law enforcement and life expectancy.
Long Island school leaders repeatedly have said they do not teach the theory, which was developed during the 1970s and 80s at the college undergraduate and graduate levels. Some conservatives have used the term to broadly describe the examination of systemic racism.
Systemic racism is one of the institutional aspects examined in critical race theory. Those who believe there is systemic racism said racism and racial inequality persist because discriminatory practices and attitudes are deeply embedded in and reinforced by American economic and political institutions.
Many conservative activists said they don't believe systemic racism exists. The conservative pushback has been gaining traction across the country, with laws passed in 2021 restricting the teaching of race and racism in public schools.
In Idaho, the governor signed a law in April limiting the ways teachers can discuss race and gender, and banning what the legislation called tenets of critical race theory. In November, North Dakota's governor signed into law a bill that banned instruction in critical race theory.
Roman, the West Babylon mother, said she does not believe systemic racism exists.
"When we take a look at this country, there is an ugly history. But there have been many things done to correct that history," Roman said.
She said she is particularly upset when claims are made against the police.
"I believe the police do the best they can, regardless of color," Roman said.
Roman said she teaches her children to focus on the Golden Rule — to do onto others as they would want to be treated. The schools should do the same, she said.
"I want that for your children, and I want that for mine," Roman said.
Learning about race starts early
Children may begin learning about race as early as kindergarten, though the word "race" itself may not come up, Singer said. In elementary school, children explore the similarities and differences between themselves and other children. They talk, for instance, about which holidays their families celebrate, he said.
In fourth and fifth grade, children begin learning about local and national history, how different people such as Native Americans, Blacks and immigrant groups lived and were treated, Singer said.
By seventh and eighth grade, students are exploring slavery and nativism, the political belief of protecting the interests of native-born inhabitants against those of immigrants. That is when the concept of racism is introduced. Singer said they may read the famed diary of Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager who chronicled her family's life hiding from the Nazis in German-occupied Amsterdam.
"The students revisit earlier topics of local and world history in more depth," Singer said.
By high school, students learning world history explore the trans-Atlantic slave trade and other topics, including civil rights, he said.
So, can a teacher explore the concept of systemic racism in society, but not be teaching critical race theory? Singer said the answer is yes, pointing to the state standards for 12th-grade social studies, which he said states: "The degree to which rights extend equally and fairly to all … is a continued source of civic contention."
Across Long Island, teachers and administrators were reluctant to speak with Newsday about how race is taught in schools. Teachers said the pressures of the complaints against them have been compounded with the anxiety of two years of fighting COVID-19 in schools, wearing masks, weathering quarantines, and sometimes teaching students in class and at home at the same time.
Newsday reached out to 16 superintendents. Only one, Richard Loeschner, agreed to speak.
Loeschner, superintendent of the Brentwood district, said it's important to teach about race and racism in his district, which enrolls students from more than 50 nations. He acknowledged the challenges.
"Obviously it's an incredibly sensitive topic, which in recent years has become even more sensitive," Loeschner said. "It is part of our history, and not something to shy away from or gloss over."
Brentwood has not seen parents at school board meetings complaining about the teaching on these issues, he said. He said he is confident his district's teachers don't teach only one point of view.
"We try to have conversations about race in a nonthreatening way, not in an accusatory way," he said. "You have to welcome all sides. If you're going to teach about Black Lives Matter, there are different perspectives on Black Lives Matter and on racism in general these days in society. You have to respect and encourage students to voice whatever opinions they have."
Some district leaders said privately that while they defend their curriculums, they were concerned about drawing the wrath of conservatives.
"They feel under attack," Roger Tilles, who represents Long Island on the state Board of Regents, said of school leaders.
Teacher says critics being misled
Greg Perles, a North Shore High School history teacher, said there's been a misunderstanding on the part of those who believe teachers are trying to indoctrinate students to believe history is divided into the oppressors and the oppressed.
"I teach race the way I would teach any incomplete promise in the American experiment — the discrimination against the Irish in the 1840s, or the Chinese in 1880s, and against the Italians, Greeks and Jews in the 1920s," he said.
When Perles teaches about Floyd or Black Lives Matter, he said he establishes verbal guardrails for the students to follow: Keep your emotions in check, and when presenting a point of view, be ready to back it up with evidence.
Perles, for his part, said he's not changing his teaching methods.
"I can't teach scared," he said. "I would be failing my obligation as a teacher. … Schools are not about guilt. That's not our job. I don't want that job."
Perles, a teacher for 27 years, said he would never start a class by saying there is systemic racism today in the justice system. That would represent a teacher thinking for the students, and the teacher would lose some of the class simply by saying such a thing, he said.
Instead, Perles said, he would offer a lesson looking at data from the justice system, on arrests, prosecutions and jail terms.
"You let the students wrestle with it on their own," Perles said. "Then offer different points of view along the political spectrum, and ask the students whose arguments are constructed best."
Following Floyd's death, Oceanside High School teacher Jennifer Wolfe, who was state Teacher of the Year 2021, said her students were eager to discuss what happened.
"They were saying, 'Please, we need to know more about this. … We have to process what just happened,' " recalled Wolfe, who teaches world history, AP human geography and government.
Over the course of 25 years of teaching, Wolfe said she has discussed gun rights, freedom of religion, women's equality and civil rights. She said she loves to air out different ideas on these topics.
"I love it when we all do not agree," Wolfe said. "That's the messy business of being a member of a democracy."
Singer sees a potential upside to the controversy. "The debate on what's being taught might open up more discussion of these issues," he said.
That's not happening enough, some said.
Brandy Scott, president of the Long Island Black Educators Association, said students are living the realities of race far more than they are being taught about them in school.
"The impact is that students are not being stimulated to look at society from a critical lens," said Scott, a retired history and social studies teacher who has taught lessons on slavery, discrimination and civil rights.
The great majority of Long Island teachers are white, she said, and some textbooks don't explore much of the history of other races, she said.
Minority teachers accounted for only 8% of the teachers on Long Island, whereas nonwhite students accounted for nearly 45% of public school enrollments, according to a 2019 Hofstra University report.
"History is presented with a very narrow perspective," said Scott, an educator for 30 years. "They [the students] don't see teachers of color. They know the deal."
Scott said she has fought over the years to change textbooks she felt were biased or flawed.
In 2002, while serving as the junior high humanities chair in the Three Village district, Scott worked to introduce new textbooks, reading materials and workbooks for English and social studies.
"Often it was challenging, building the consensus among the staff — and it costs money," she said. "We came up with a plan. It took a while."
The effort took three years, she said.
Debate spills over into politics
The debate has become an issue politically, in elections locally and around the country.
In Smithtown, three school board challengers defeated incumbents in May after campaigning on a platform that accused the district of teaching critical race theory. School officials said they were not teaching the theory.
In August, the district restricted the use of 34 BrainPop instructional videos that deal with race, sexuality and violence, following a complaint that some content is biased against conservative viewpoints.
Tilles, the Board of Regents member, said teaching about race had improved over the past 20 years, but the current political climate had made it challenging.
"If I were a teacher and needed my job, I'd be watching my words and shying away from talking the way that I do, afraid I could lose my job," he said.
Tilles said public school instruction was not about teaching students that someone was a racist because of the color of their skin, or instilling guilt.
"It's important for kids to know the actual facts, not to feel guilty or less than the other kids," he said. "It's important for kids to learn about diversity and equity. That needs to be explored."
A major flashpoint occurred in April when the Board of Regents released a "Framework on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion." The board encouraged districts to adopt their own plans from the framework.
In the document's introduction, it speaks to the need for more understanding of these subjects, pointing to, among other reasons, "The senseless, brutal killing of Black and Brown men at the hands of law enforcement."
April Emrisko, a West Babylon mother with a daughter in ninth grade and one that recently graduated from high school, said such beliefs teach kids to hate police.
"They're not teaching about history. They're branching off and making statements about segregation and anti-police," said Emrisko, 43. "It's not healthy for children. … They're dividing. They're splitting everybody into groups."
The debate has caused tension in Emrisko's own home, she said. She was shocked when her ninth-grade daughter said the American flag was racist and that Americans live on land stolen from Native Americans. Now her daughter is refusing to stand in school for the Pledge of Allegiance, she said.
"It's terrible. We've had many arguments," Emrisko said.
Worse, she said, "Both of my children do not like police officers. I love my police officers. I love the military. I make that well known."
Tilles, for his part, said the wording of the Regents' statement on police-related deaths could have been improved, though he does believe the statement to be true.
Hu, the Great Neck mother, said she attended a Great Neck school board meeting on Nov. 17 where some parents complained about a lesson taught in an 11th-grade English course in North High School. She spoke up about her faith in the instruction.
"I wanted to support the teacher," Hu said. "I'm not a professional educator, so it's not my part to judge the material."
Parents complained about some slides they said the teacher was using, which they allege represented politically slanted opinions and not facts, according to a recording of the meeting.
The accusations also appeared in an article on the website Parents Defending Education, a national group that, according to its website, is "working to reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas."
According to the article, one slide discussed racism in America, saying, "White people benefit from this system, intentionally or unintentionally, which makes us all [technically] racists, myself included."
One of the slides also said racism in the country is "no better than it was 200 years ago."
District Superintendent Teresa Prendergast and school board president Rebecca Sassouni declined through a spokesman to be interviewed.
The Great Neck district released a statement saying the district is "committed to the importance of impartial and objective teaching of controversial issues in a viewpoint-neutral manner that stimulates critical thinking and reasoning skills."
Hu said she has seen the slides that parents are complaining about and has no problem with them. She suspects the statements were there to spur class discussion, and that they could have been among many points of view offered in the lesson.
'Being pushed under a rug'
Annika Duhaney, 17, said the lack of teaching on race left her to figure out many issues on her own. When she was 7, Duhaney, who is Black, said she realized that her neighborhood of Lakeview, which had many minorities, had smaller houses, bad roads and dilapidated parks.
"As apparent as it seemed to me, this fact was completely ignored at school, as if the racial segregation was only to be understood, not to be discussed," the Malverne High School senior wrote for in an essay on the importance of teaching the history of race.
When she was 16, she said a librarian at the high school told her about the racial history of her area.
"If this was taught earlier on, Black children like me wouldn't develop feelings of inferiority," she wrote in the essay. "These insecurities could be replaced with pride, as they'd be told of the astronomical efforts made by their predecessors to change the way things were."
Duhaney, in an interview, said she learned some basics about civil rights in elementary and middle school, but those lessons skimmed the surface.
In high school, she said, she has learned more about the civil rights movement, including instruction on the Freedom Riders, who were groups of white and Black activists who made bus trips through the South to protest segregated bus terminals.
"We learned some of the more awful things," she said. "We saw a lot of disturbing pictures — dogs assaulting Black men. We got the specifics and the gory details."
Looking ahead, Duhaney said the first step toward improving the teaching about race is more communication.
"We should just talk about it more," she said. "The students deserve explicit explanations, the reasons for how things are. Some sort of understanding."
Gabriela Pesantez, 17, of Hewlett, said that after Floyd's death, she very much wanted to discuss it in class. She counts herself among those who believe that racist measures put in place decades ago live on today, she said.
Pesantez, a senior at Hewlett High School, said the topics of race and racism are often gone over quickly in classes, emphasizing the memorization of dates. She's heard a lot about the immigration to Ellis Island years ago, but little on the modern issue of immigration from South America, she said.
Some teachers encourage discussion about race, while others seem to avoid it, "not wanting to make anyone uncomfortable," she said. "It's kind of like being pushed under a rug."
She recalled, however, that Floyd was discussed in her AP U.S. history class in 2020. The class, which was a mix of remote and in-class instruction, also talked about the Black Lives Matter protests.
The teacher made sure to emphasize that no student had a license to disrespect another, and that they were there to share their ideas, not judge, she said.
Pesantez said students began to share whether they were a Democrat or Republican.
"It was a very respectful conversation," she said. "It made [the class discussion] meaningful, and it opened my eyes to other points of view."
Looking ahead, she said she had seen some changes coming in some classroom lessons.
"We are still memorizing things," she said. "But now we're kind of moving toward understanding."