A school board work session was cut short Wednesday afternoon after discussions turned to racism and related curriculum in schools.
The 15-minute tangent began with a conversation about a past meeting, where a potential ban of anti-racism curriculum was on the agenda. The conversation became heated and prompted President Lisa Roman to ask Board Member Nichole Cohen to confirm if she is “anti-racist or pro-racist.”
After a pause and no immediate response from Cohen, Roman added, “It shouldn’t be a hard question to answer.” She also repeated the question multiple times to Cohen, who argued that it is “not an either/or.”
“It is a difficult question to answer, because if you don’t say that you’re anti-racist, then you must be a racist, right?” Cohen said. “...I think racism absolutely takes place and there is nothing you can do about it. I think we have made tons of progress since the Civil Rights movement. I think that academia has made racism ‘cool,’ somehow, to talk about it. I think we’ve victimized our whole population, and I think that it’s completely out of control. And the idea that you’re going to be the arbiter of morals and what’s good and what’s not, by demanding that I pick one of two, shows exactly what I’m talking about. This is the problem.”
The argument gained some attention on social media Thursday morning after a clip from the meeting was shared on Twitter. Board members Cohen and Roman have clashed in the past on issues such as the reopening of schools and curriculum.
Cohen has repeatedly expressed her concern about “anti-racism curriculum,” such as Black Lives Matter or the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, being brought into Havasu’s classrooms without the board’s knowledge. She did so during the Sept. 15 board meeting in discussion in response to a student’s letter and again during Wednesday’s work session, which led to Roman’s questioning.
“I gave Ms. Cohen several direct opportunities to clear up any confusion regarding the motivation behind her agenda item by asking a simple question — ‘Are you pro-racist or anti-racist?’” Roman said Thursday. “I was not expecting her repeated deflections and outright refusal to answer. Ms. Cohen's responses suggest a moral cravenness that is not becoming of a public servant.”
Cohen explained Thursday that there was a Lake Havasu High School Social Studies teacher in 2017, who she does not know the name of, who hosted a lecture given by Dr. Danny Pirtle. According to his curriculum vitae, Pirtle is a senior lecturer at ASU Havasu who spoke about Black Lives Matter and the prison industrial complex to high school students in March 2017. He also gave a lecture concerning crime and the media at the high school in January 2017.
Cohen also pointed to a five-page article about Black Lives matter and systemic racism featured in the November Scholastic News magazine that is distributed to elementary schools.
“I am grateful our superintendent retrieved the magazines from our elementary schools as soon as she was notified,” Cohen said Thursday. “The propaganda in that article is a clear example of indoctrination. Why on Earth would we want our children to read about ‘doctors giving better care to white people than black people’?”
She added that “identity politics reigns in academia.”
“I have a history with being called a racist in this community,” Cohen said. “I have teachers that are showing up at the Black Lives Matter [protest] when we’re under the pandemic lockdown to support students who are writing us letters saying, ‘You didn’t do enough to teach us not to be racist, and this is what we demand that the board do,’ and then our president signs it. So I’m supposed to just assume that there’s no way that’s coming into our school? No… It should have been a no-brainer for our board. Our board should have said, ‘We are never going to expose our students to this kind of crap and make them feel guilty about being white.’”
Roman said that was never the intent, and pointed out that Cohen said that the school board should “disallow any anti-racism curriculum”, which Cohen confirmed, adding Thursday that that does not make her a racist.
“The cure to racism is not more racism,” Cohen said Thursday. “Anti-racism curriculum is not what you think it is. It is racism personified. Today, it is not enough to not be a racist — you must fight in solidarity against it? How about we teach our kids to stand against it when, where, and if they see it?”
“I didn’t want to go down this road,” Cohen said Wednesday after further discussion of her agenda item concerning the 1619 Project. “It is a lie to say that our kids are not learning about anti-racist curriculum in our high school. It is a flat out lie to just assume it. Just because you call one teacher, just because it hasn’t been approved by the board, it’s outrageous to think that this is not part of what our kids are dealing with.”
After Roman later noted her belief that most of the district’s curriculum appropriately teaches slavery through a negative lens, Cohen said she believes it should be “taught the way it was written at the time,” that “it should be identified that there’s been slaves since the beginning of time,” and the Constitution and Founding Fathers’ efforts to “set us up to eradicate that” should be highlighted.
“I think that people should appreciate people based on the content of their character and not the color of their skin,” Cohen said. “But somehow, race relations became terrible in this country. As somebody who grew up in southern California, for the first time in my life, once, we elected a black president who constantly rang that bell, and it has deteriorated ever since. I don’t want my grandkids getting on their knees. I don’t want them hating the police. So it’s a little more complicated than, ‘Are you anti-racist or racist?’”
Roman emphasized Thursday that this incident “does not represent the majority of the board, nor does it diminish the commitment that our district has made towards student achievement and the hard work that our teachers and staff have devoted to educating children, even in the midst of a pandemic.” She added that she hopes the district’s families, teachers and students know that they are there to “serve all children, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation.”
The work session was adjourned due to a lack of productivity, and the session will be rescheduled at a later date. Roman anticipates the next session will occur after the new board members are empaneled in January so they can aid in the creation of a board evaluation document.
Roman is currently the subject of a parent-organized effort to recall her from the school board, a process that begins with a petition that needs to gather at least 3,607 valid signatures by Dec. 21. Cohen’s term is set to expire at the end of the year.
The next school board meeting is scheduled for Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. at the high school’s Performing Arts Center, located at 2675 Palo Verde Boulevard S. The meeting will be limited capacity, and a live-stream is available to watch on lhusd.org/boardcalendardocsvideos.
It will also be Cohen’s last school board meeting.