Richland teacher threatened for signing controversial pledge

Some call it “critical race theory.” Others call it “things that happened in the past.”

By Cameron Probert / Tri-City Herald

RICHLAND — A Richland teacher is refusing to back down after getting threats for supporting what has become a controversial pledge.

Opinions differ on what the Zinn Educational Project pledge stands for. For Kirsten Sierra, she supports teaching all parts of history including events that can make some people uncomfortable.

“I have families that are Muslim, families that are Jewish and a family that is Hindu,” she said. “I want all of our families to feel like they are seen and acknowledged.”

But the Freedom Foundation and other conservative groups see it as a confirmation of supporting teaching about a controversial academic concept of Critical Race Theory.

That’s how one man sees the pledge, threatening Sierra with this message: “Better get out of town before people show up to your class room to make you leave this town.”

“You will not make it here,” according a screen shot of the message sent from a Ryan Olsen. “I would unsign or put away your sheep ways. We will F—K YOU UP,” he wrote.

Sierra, a Jason Lee Elementary librarian, reported the threat to Kennewick Police Department, and alerted school officials and the teachers union. She not interest in criminal charges, but wants him and others to understand that people should not threaten others they disagree with.

“We can be civil about all of this. …. I don’t have any problems with my beliefs being challenged,” she said. “I’m not the kind of person to be scared into not doing the things that I believe are right.”

The Zinn pledge

The Zinn Education Project supports teaching “the people’s history” in the classroom. It’s based on the work of Howard Zinn, an American historian, who wrote about the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement and the history of labor in the United States.

One of his most famous writings, A People’s History of the United States, tells the history of America from the point of view of women, factory workers, Blacks, Native Americans, the working poor and immigrant laborers.

The Zinn Education Project has been one of several focuses of criticism by conservatives who have thrown it under the same umbrella as other educational programs focused on expanding what is taught in classrooms.

That includes the New York Times’ 1619 Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice Curriculum and BLM at School.

Critics, such as Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, argue they are really just ways to sew division.

Collectively, opponents have said that falls under the umbrella of Critical Race Theory. Similarly, they are critical of diversity, equity and inclusion training.

Critical race theory emerged in the 1970s and was promoted by legal scholars an effort to examine the law in how it serves the interests of people in power at the expense of others.

The idea is that racism is not just the result of a person’s bias or prejudice, but also is embedded in legal systems and policies where laws and court rulings can perpetuate it.

The issue mostly has been examined in college level courses and aims to understand why some people are treated differently but does not teach that anyone should be treated differently because of their skin color, say researchers.

In reaction to a host of bills circulating across the U.S., the Zinn Education Project posted the pledge, criticizing what they see as legislation aimed at limiting teaching about the nation’s history.

They point out it does not name any lesson that is inaccurate or mislead students about events in U.S. history.

“We the undersigned educators will not be bullied,” the pledge says. “We will continue our commitment to develop critical thinking that supports students to better understand problems in our society, and to develop collective solutions to those problems. We are for truth-telling and uplifting the power of organizing and solidarity that move us toward a more just society.”

The names on the pledge were made public, but the list has since been taken down after critics began signing the pledge and adding negative comments.

While the pledge does not include the term Critical Race Theory or refer to it, Ashley N. Varner, vice president of communications and federal affairs for the Freedom Foundation, said people can argue about semantics, but it remains a “commitment by K-12 teachers to instruct their students to judge people by how they look, rather than the content of their character.”

The pledge caught the attention of local radio station, NewsTalk KFLD, which shared information about it online. The information about the two Tri-City teachers appeared to be shared through there.

The links to the list have now been taken down.

Critical Race Theory debate

While the Freedom Foundation called the pledge a promise to teach Critical Race Theory in the classroom, Sierra said it’s not.

“We do not teach Critical Race Theory. We’ve never taught Critical Race Theory,” she said. “We try to acknowledge things that happened in the past.”

Similar concerns about teaching Critical Race Theory in schools prompted the Richland School Board to pass a resolution explaining that employees are not being trained to teach CRT.

The resolution said they are committed to increasing equity, cultural awareness, diversity and inclusion.

“These are our thoughts and values, collectively and individually,” Board President Rick Jansons said in a release following the vote. “This resolution and motion are intended to clearly set forward the position of the individual board members and the board as we move forward in working with our community and in an attempt to correct the many misunderstandings this board has been hearing in our community.”

Sierra told the Herald what she wants to make sure that everyone feels like they are being represented in the classroom.

She noted that the history she was taught in school glossed over the more uncomfortable moments in history, such as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the U.S. Public Health Service syphilis study in Tuskegee.

She pointed out that because she teaches 5 to 11 year olds, many topics are not developmentally appropriate.

What she doesn’t want to see is politics getting in the way of giving students of other ages all the information so they can make decisions.

“I want us to teach the truth and acknowledge the past,” she said.

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