Teachers can discuss racism, slavery in class but parents can remove students from “objectionable” lessons  

  • The Black Lives Matter demonstrators take a knee in front of the Concord Police station on their way to the State House during their rally on Saturday afternoon, June 6, 2020.

Monitor staff
Published: 7/22/2021 3:37:05 PM

Teaching about the country’s history of slavery, its racist Jim Crow Laws, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the modern Black Lives Matter movement won’t violate state law even if those lessons make students uncomfortable, according to legal advice from the state Attorney General’s Office. 

“These lessons may encourage or prompt students to reflect upon whether and how racism, sexism, or other practices have or have not affected their lives. Even discussion of historical practices and their lingering impact upon different identified groups can cause this discomfort,” states the legal advice to educators that was released this week in response to changes to state law. “The mere fact that a lesson may make students, faculty or parents uncomfortable does not mean that the school has violated the Prohibition on Teaching Discrimination.”

The new law, known as the “Right to Freedom from Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education,” was passed with the state budget in June and regulates teaching of “divisive concepts” relating to race and sex. The law prohibits schools or government agencies from teaching that an individual is racist, sexist or otherwise oppressive “consciously or unconsciously,” and applies to all classroom and extracurricular activities K-12 public and public charter schools. At the college and university level, the law applies to workplace training sessions, but not to classrooms.

The guidance, which was announced by Attorney General John Formella, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and Commission for Human Rights Executive Director Ahni Malachi, has been eagerly awaited since June by educators and civil rights activists who are keen to know how the new law will impact school curriculums, workplace diversity training and police implicit bias classes.

According to the new guidance document, K-12 public schools are not allowed to teach that one identified group of people (categorized by race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion or more) are inherently superior or inferior to any other group, or that any group should be discriminated against or not treated equally. Schools are also not allowed to teach that one category of people is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” an advisory aimed at classroom conversations about systemic racism and unconscious bias.

However, according to the document, schools can discuss these types of ideas “as part of a larger course of academic instruction.”

“Nothing prohibits schools from teaching about discrimination, including the historical existence of these ideas,” the FAQ sheet reads.

The law does not prohibit teachers from discussing aspects of U.S. history that relate to racism or adverse treatment of women, LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities.

The guidance document makes it clear that if a student or parent finds a certain lesson “uncomfortable,” it does not mean the school has violated a state law.

However, parents can remove their child from participation in specific course material, in accordance with a pre-existing New Hampshire law that allows students to be given an alternative assignment to education material their parents find “objectionable.”

In addition, a student or parent who believes a school has violated the new state discrimination law can file a complaint with the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights or with the New Hampshire Office of the Attorney General, or can file a civil claim in superior court to seek damages.  If the state finds a teacher has violated the law, it’s considered a violation of the educator code of conduct and could result in a disciplinary sanction against the teacher by the state Board of Education.

Besides the guidance issued for schools, the state also issued a guidance for public employers and government programs, which mainly regulates workplace training programs.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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