Parents successfully block race-based school groups
Massachusetts school district agrees to settlement over student “affinity groups”
The public school district in Wellesley, Mass., met with opposition from parents last year over its controversial race-based and speech policies. The district had promoted student “affinity-based group” sessions in which only certain races were allowed to participate. That prompted a lawsuit.
In a Feb. 7 settlement, school officials in the Boston suburb backtracked. They agreed to open race-based affinity groups to all students regardless of race, and they agreed to revise the district’s “bias reporting procedure” to broaden protections for student speech.
The lawsuit filed in October 2021 contended that the school district’s speech and affinity group policies violated the Constitution’s equal protection and free speech guarantees. In it, Parents Defending Education, an educational advocacy group, challenged a 2020 Wellesley “diversity, equity, and inclusion” plan under which the school district began to promote “affinity spaces for students with shared identity” in order to “nurture and affirm positive racial identity development.”
In practice, Wellesley’s policy led to exclusion, not inclusion, the organization argued: The lawsuit noted that teachers sent invitations only to “Black and Brown” or “Asian and Asian American” students, and administrators instructed that the affinity group meetings were not for white students. One email from a middle-school teacher to students read, “Note: This is a safe space for our Asian/Asian-American and Students of Color, *not* for students who identify only as White.”
The parent organization also took aim at Wellesley’s student speech code, which prohibited “harassment,” “bullying,” “hate speech,” and “incivility.” The group called those content-based restrictions on speech vague and overbroad. It also criticized the use of a “bias response team” for the reporting of speech deemed offensive—a policy that could chill disfavored speech and prompt students to punish classmates who express unpopular views.
Seven decades ago, the Supreme Court ended segregation by race in the nation’s public schools, but some race-based school policies in recent years have seemed instead to promote division and litigation. Last week Alliance Defending Freedom filed a motion in a Virginia lawsuit that seeks to block enforcement of a school board’s policy allegedly promoting critical race theory and teaching black and white students to consider themselves as victims or oppressors, depending on their skin color.
Monday’s settlement with Wellesley allows the continued use of affinity groups focused on racial groups but requires that students be informed that groups are open to all students. It retains the bias reporting procedure but narrows its definition of “bias” and protects political speech by students. Yet the district reporting policy still targets acts of “unconscious bias”—a category likely to stoke future controversy.
Both sides claimed the settlement as a win. School officials said the district “unequivocally protected its right to the use of affinity groups sessions in the Wellesley Public Schools and a bias-based reporting procedure.”
But Parents Defending Education President Nicole Neily said, “This settlement sends a clear message that racially segregating students in public schools is wrong—and there will be consequences. ... We will not tolerate a return to segregation in 2022.”
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