CARMEL, Ind. — Tensions were high at a four-hour Carmel Clay School Board meeting Monday night, as an overflow crowd debated the district’s recent addition of a diversity, equity and inclusion officer.
Parents and grandparents extended into an overflow area outside, largely in opposition to a program some compared to “the philosophies of Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx.”
In December, Carmel Clay Schools announced it would hire the district’s first diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officer.
Terri Roberts-Leonard, formerly the director of diversity and inclusion at Franklin College, started work Jan. 19.
Roberts-Leonard’s responsibilities in the DEI role are described as recruiting and supporting a diverse staff, ensuring a positive educational experience for a diverse student body, and creating a safe and welcoming environment.
The hiring was announced about four months after a group called Carmel Against Racial Injustice raised concerns over reports of racism at Carmel High School and asked the school district to take action, though it’s unclear whether that influenced the district’s decision.
A Change.org petition was created calling for districtwide reforms, including the hiring of a chief equity officer.
The group also called for bias and cultural awareness training for all staff, curriculum changes to study the history of people of color year-round, and immediate investigations of discrimination complaints, among other initiatives.
At Monday’s meeting, Carmel mother Jennifer Reeves said the program is blurring the lines between what the school district should be educating students about and what should be left to the parents.
“As parents and as citizens of Carmel, you would be appalled at what they are doing and what they are teaching … how they are omitting the parent from the decisions,” she said.
Superintendent Michael Beresford, interviewed after the meeting, said the debate highlighted some misinformation about the DEI program that needs to be addressed, including the belief that critical race theory is part of the school curriculum. It is not, he said.
“The idea behind our efforts for inclusion and equity is really to meet the needs of our kids,” he said. “We want our staff to be highly trained so that every student in every classroom can be in an identify safe, a race safe, a religious and cultural safe place.”
Beresford encouraged parents to watch the report at the end of the meeting where Roberts-Leonard described the mission of the DEI program and how that applies to the schools.
Parents who expressed support for the program described it as a way to hear diverse voices who are part of the ever-growing population of the Carmel Clay school district.
Adam Bray, another Carmel parent, said there’s a certain amount of insensitivity in the school district around religious and racial diversity. His children are disciplined more often for the same things their classmates are doing, he said.
“I’m embarrassed to be from Carmel this evening, actually. Hearing what I heard today in that room makes me extremely sad and disappointed,” Bray said. “They’ve turned it into a big political thing and they claim that it’s political on our side. I’m not on any side. I’m just on the side of non-ignorance.”