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COCHISE COUNTY — With the signing of House Bill 2898 into law on June 30, which aims to prohibit instruction of critical race theory in Arizona K-12 schools, many questions arise about the theory’s definition, classroom teaching and how students will learn about racism.

The law

According to a July 9 press release from Gov. Doug Ducey’s office, HB 2898 “ensures that students cannot be taught that one race, ethnic group or sex is in any way superior to another, or that anyone should be discriminated against on the basis of these characteristics. The law allows a fine of up to $5,000 for schools that violate the law.”

The law has some Texas roots.

“Basically, we saw the bill from Texas (Senate Bill 3) and looked at the language of the bill and there were things that we really liked,” said Rep. Michelle Udall, who was the original sponsor of HB 2898 before Rep. Regina Cobb sponsored the final edition. “We honed in on where we felt were the problems with some of what is called critical race theory.”

“However, critical race theory, or CRT, is never explicitly mentioned in the text of HB 2898, despite Ducey’s press stating the governor, “took a decisive step to prohibit the concerning practice of critical race theory” by signing the bill into law.

Udall said CRT was not included in the text of the bill because of its varying definitions.

“Critical race theory means something different to different people,” said Udall. “For some people, it’s just teaching about racism. And that’s certainly not something we want to stop. I think that it’s important for students to know about racism, it’s important for students to know about history, and learn about racism as it applies both to history and to the present day.

“What we don’t want is students being taught either to place blame or judgement on the basis of race or to feel blamed or judged because of their race.”

Clea McCaa, president of the Greater Huachuca Area Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, isn’t sold on the bill.

“The issue that I take with both House Bills 2906 and 2898 is that the ban is being placed on something that has nothing to do with what CRT proposes, which is that systems in this country have been embedded out of racism, i.e., housing, banking, the legal justice system, etc.,” McCaa said.

House Bill 2906 prohibits state and local governments from “requiring their employees to engage in orientation, training or therapy that suggest an employee is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

What is CRT?

Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.

At the core of the CRT debate is its definition.

According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, CRT “address what he (Derrick Bell, Harvard University law professor) saw as shortcomings in understanding how discrimination and inequity are perpetuated in the law.”

Bell, who died in 2011, is widely regarded as the pioneer of CRT as a legal field of study in the 1970s. The New York Times said Bell was “often described as the godfather of critical race theory.”

A June 17 Wall Street Journal article said CRT argues that “the legacy of white supremacy remains embedded in modern-day society through laws and institutions that were fundamental in shaping American society. Generally speaking, it rejects the idea that laws are inherently neutral, even if they are sometimes applied unevenly.”

Schools in the county

Is CRT taught at the K-12 level in Cochise County?

The Herald/Review reached out to local school district leaders and teachers in Cochise County about the law and CRT. All said it’s not taught because it’s not included in the Arizona Department of Education’s K-12 state standards.

“The core of critical race theory is one of the issues, because the definition varies widely,” said Tombstone Unified School District Superintendent Robert Devere. “(It’s) absolutely not taught in Tombstone Unified School District.”

Devere said the district teaches the state standards, which does not include CRT.

School leaders in Bisbee, Sierra Vista and Douglas said CRT is not taught in their districts and schools.

“Sierra Vista Unified School District has followed the state standards for all subject areas, to include social studies and civics,” said SVUSD Public Information Officer Valerie Weller in an email. “There were no changes made to those standards to included (CRT) in the past. We will continue to follow those standards going forward.”

“CRT historically is something that is done post secondary and not something taught in K-12 schools as part of the standards or curriculum,” said Bisbee High School Principal Darin Giltner in an email. “CRT has not been taught at the high school.”

Douglas Unified School District Superintendent Ana Samaniego had a similar response.

“We will continue to use our curriculum to teach our standards and we will follow the guidelines under HB 2898 to ensure that we are not in violation of this mandate,” she said in an email. “Our teachers will still continue to teach as they have always done, without placing their own preconceived theories or opinions about critical race theory.”

Morgan Dick, ADE public information officer, said that to the department’s knowledge, CRT is not taught in Arizona K-12 schools.

Udall said she brought the issue to the table because she’s received feedback from parents and school board members who are concerned about CRT being taught.

“We have children coming home and telling their parents that they were taught different things,” said Udall. “And I understand that sometimes what comes home, the message wasn’t received clearly at school. However, I think it’s really detrimental to students when they come home either feeling blame or feeling like it’s appropriate to blame based on race. I think that should have absolutely no place in our schools.

“I realize that a lot of people say that it’s not happening at schools at all. But we had the National Education Association pushing critical race theory. We have it showing up in professional development throughout the Valley and the state. And parents are concerned about it. School board members are concerned about it.”

Udall said HB 2898 was used as both a preventative measure and to address the current issue.

The views

Teachers and residents of Cochise County shared their thoughts on CRT and the recent legislation.

Joseph Brown, a high school English teacher in Cochise County (Brown requested his school district not be identified), said CRT should not be taught in the classroom.

Brown said that the theory is divisive.

“I’m a father of mixed race kids, and they are Hispanic, which is kinda the prominent nationality here or ethnicity here,” said Brown. “And I teach my kids, they are in a different school system than I teach in, and they’re not made to believe that they are Latinas first, they are made to believe that their academics (are) first.”

Others are for teaching CRT in K-12 schools, arguing that students need to get a more inclusive look at the nation’s history.

“I have a really hard time understanding why folks wouldn’t want it to be taught in schools,” said Kelly Owen, a social worker. “I feel that already that the whitewashing of the history books has always been a problem, and you learn as a young child about Thanksgiving being like this joyous occasion amongst the Native Americans and the pilgrims, and that just wasn’t necessarily the case.

“I just think that we’re basically doing a disservice to our children to not show them the entire picture. They are missing a key part of it.”

McCaa said high school students should have instruction on systemic racism.

“I believe that students in high school are intellectually mature enough to grapple with learning how systems they are (at that age) about to be faced with as they enter into the world as young adults,” she said. “It’s important for young adults to have that historical framework already processed in their understanding so that they will know how to navigate the world and make the most well-informed decisions.”

Others fall in the middle, arguing that if history instruction was inclusive from the beginning, instruction on CRT isn’t needed.

Rebecca Orozco, former history and anthropology instructor at Cochise College, stated her case.

“If history is taught as a subject in its totality ... it wouldn’t be necessary,” said Orozco, who retired from teaching in 2020. “I didn’t teach CRT as CRT because it really wasn’t out there yet. I hadn’t really heard of it as a concept until after I retired.

“I also tried really hard to always include all populations when I taught history. So would I have taught critical race theory? Well, I probably would have talked about it. But I hope as a history instructor, what I taught negated the need for critical race theory.”

Lorenzo Simmons, who works for a moving company, said he’s concerned how CRT would be simplified for a K-12 student body.

“From what I understand, it’s taught to people who are going for a law degree,” Simmons said. “So, I don’t really know how you would break that down for somebody in kindergarten or first grade, second grade.

“I’d just have to see how they would want to implement it. ‘Cause it’s a discussion ... They’re not trying to teach anything, it’s just a discussion so that you can understand the theory as far as I know.”

HB 2898 impact

“I don’t believe that it was a necessary action,” Owen said regarding the bill. “I have not read the bill myself, but from what I understand of the potential bills that are coming out in different states opposing teaching CRT, it’s not very well defined as far as what’s OK and what’s not.

“Are teachers still going to be able to talk about the Trail of Tears? How far in-depth do they go? Are they able to still teach about civil rights? It just seems confusing and it seems like just prohibiting key information about the history of the United States just ‘cause it’s not pretty.”

Brown said it is necessary “because there’s a lot of people floating away from the standards ... You know it’s gonna seep into more of the liberal or advocates within the teaching realm. In Cochise (County), especially where I am at, it’s ultra conservative. I doubt that it will ever seep into our district.”

So, what happens now?

When it comes to addressing concerns about teaching our nation’s history, Dick of the ADE said that according to the department’s guide for teachers relating to HB 2898, teaching of historical events is approved but cannot be implemented with simulations to demonstrate oppression.

Udall said that HB 2898 doesn’t limit instruction on historical acts of racism like the Tulsa Massacre or Japanese internment camps, but said the line lies in assigning responsibility.

“The difference is we shouldn’t be telling anyone that ‘you were responsible for the things that people of your race have done in the past,’ “ said Udall. “You’re responsible for yourself and those within your own sphere of influence and the good or bad you do within that sphere of influence ...

“We’re not saying that ‘what happened is wrong, because it was done by white people.’ We’re saying that ‘what happened was wrong because it was bad to do,’ ‘it was wrong because the act itself was discriminatory,’ ‘the act itself was racist.’ We are not saying that it was wrong because of the color of anyone’s skin. It was wrong because the act itself, the act itself was wrong. I think there’s a big difference between those two things.”

McCaa said, “HB 2898 places a ban on something that I don’t believe has ever been at the center of any instruction in schools — teachers don’t deliver lessons to their class that say that one race is superior to the other, or that you, as an individual, are inherently racist.

“What CRT does do is shed light on how systems in this country were, and still are, erected to intentionally disenfranchise certain groups of people, i.e., Black, brown, and poor ...

“I believe the parents have the ultimate responsibility to educate their children, regardless of race, on how America was framed to marginalize various populations, and how those systems still linger in our school districts, universities, prison systems and housing markets. Black and brown parents should teach their children about the system that they must be prepared to fight against, and white parents should also teach their children about the same systems that were initially constructed to give them a much better shake at success, so that they can one day, hopefully, become allies and work to demolish those systems.”

Carlos Alfaro, marketing and communications director at Stand for Children Arizona, a nonprofit education advocacy organization, said the effect of HB 2898 should be minimal, but noted there is potential for a broader impact.

“Given that CRT has never been part of Arizona’s standards or part of K-12 level curriculum, HB 2898 shouldn’t have much of an effect on actual classroom practice,” said Alfaro in an email. “However, the next generation does need to learn the truth about our past to avoid repeating historical mistakes in the future.

“To the extent that this legislation was an attack on local school districts’ attempts to directly address racism in schools, it could have a broader impact — paving the way to actually censor teachers, prevent thorough, accurate, and fact-based history instruction, and ban lessons that help students learn that racism is wrong. Racism continues to be widespread and this type of legislation only seeks to exasperate that.”