Loudoun County’s brewing education battle
Virginia parents sue to stop school district’s anonymous bias reporting plan
Debates over the Loudoun County, Va., public school district’s equity efforts have grown increasingly heated. Factions target each other with petitions and school board meeting speeches, and even talk of infiltrating and exposing opponents’ Facebook groups or hacking their websites. Last week, a group of parents filed a lawsuit against the school board, arguing the equity plan includes features—such as an anonymous racism reporting system—that will stifle students’ free speech.
Loudoun County Public Schools developed the Comprehensive Equity Plan in response to stories of racist incidents that students of color reported in focus groups. The students said they felt ignored when peers and teachers used racist slurs and jokes. The district plans to create an anonymous system for reporting future incidents. The lawsuit alleges that the reporting form includes boxes for “offensive language, teasing or taunting language/verbal exchange” and “exclusion or victim of lack of inclusivity.” Principals at each middle and high school also chose students to become “Student Equity Ambassadors” who meet with district leadership. According to the lawsuit, the district initially specified that the ambassadors must be students of color and must “represent your peers of color.”
The reporting system would not initiate discipline without an investigation under Loudoun’s established bullying and hate speech protocols. But the parents’ lawsuit notes students and teachers often disagree on what qualifies as harmful. The lawsuit alleges that three student ambassadors listed phrases including “I believe in a colorblind society” as microaggressions in a presentation to the school board.
Loudoun’s equity plan also includes implementing mandatory “equity literacy and racial consciousness” training for staff, reducing disproportionate discipline of African American and Hispanic students, increasing staff diversity, and other steps. The county identified controversial books like How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad as “needed resources” and listed dismantling “systemic oppression” as a specific aim.
The equity plans “are not an effort to indoctrinate students and staff into a particular philosophy or theory,” Superintendent Scott Ziegler wrote in a letter posted on the district website. “What they are is an effort to provide a welcoming, inclusive, affirming environment for all students.”
But the lawsuit argues the reporting system will silence students and that any dissent to the district’s approach could be labeled as “bias”. Parents also point out that the equity plan doesn’t limit reporting to incidents that occur on campus. Daniel Suhr, the Liberty Justice Center attorney filing the suit, said the district’s reporting plan would create a school-sanctioned system for “naming and shaming” students. Bias reports could also hurt college prospects: Universities have revoked admissions offers over students’ use of racial slurs on social media.
In addition, the lawsuit argues that because equity ambassadors are official positions with authority to represent students to district leadership, the requirement that they have “a passion for social justice” is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. Suhr said the new measures will curb not just racist speech but also healthy discussion as middle and high school students self-censor.
“Anybody who hears a communication and perceives it to be offensive or insensitive is now empowered to turn the speaker in and have a report filed accusing that person of bias,” he said. “Students are understandably just going to self-censor rather than risk being labeled as a racist.”
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