After an at-times
raucous meeting that stretched well into the night before a crowd hundreds of
parents, students, teachers, community members and others, the New Trier High
School Board of Education has endorsed the high school administration’s plans
to proceed with an all-day student seminar on civil rights criticized by many
as political indoctrination.
On Monday, Feb.
20, people packed the Cornog Auditorium at New Trier High School’s west campus
in Northfield, with many staying for three hours or more, to make their voices
heard on the controversy-plagued seminar.
included more than one hour of public comment. New Trier Board President Greg
Robitaille said more than 100 people had requested the chance to speak, but the
board could only select the first 20 who had signed up three minutes each to
speak. Normally, he said, the board would allot only 30 minutes of its monthly
meeting for public comment.
Doors to the
auditorium had opened at 6 p.m., and public comment began a little after 8 p.m.
The New Trier
community, which includes residents of the wealthy communities of Wilmette,
Winnetka, Kenilworth, Northfield and Glencoe, has been embroiled in controversy
over the seminar since a group of parents and others became concerned after
noting the topics and sessions planned for the mandatory student event.
seminar is planned to include keynote addresses from novelist
and columnist Colson Whitehead and author Andrew Aydin. Aydin serves as Digital
Director and Policy Advisor to Democratic U.S. Rep. and Civil Rights movement
leader John Jewis, of Georgia.
It will also feature a number of workshop sessions from which
students can choose. New Trier administrators have said about 70 percent of the
100 workshops will be led by New Trier teachers, some of whom will be including
materials they use in regular classroom instruction.
Workshop sessions have been given such titles as: “21st Century
Voter Suppression,” “Affirmative Action in Elite College Admissions,”
“Affordable Housing and Racial Diversity,” “Blackenomics 101,” “Examining our
Biases,” “Seeing the Unseen: Racial Bias All Round You,” “Taking Action Against
Injustice” and “Theft or Homage? A Discussion of Cultural Appropriation,” among
The potentially provocative subject matter of
the workshops and the seminar in general have sparked a response from some
parents, who say the session is politically slanted and biased. In response,
they have launched a group, called “Parents of New Trier,” to petition the
school administrators and board to either politically balance the event with other
speakers, make the event optional for students, or cancel the seminar.
While rumors have swirled of potential legal
action over the seminar, to date, no one has filed suit or publicly announced
an intent to do so. None of the comments Monday discussed any potential for
Instead, opponents of the seminar focused their
comments on continued requests for the school board to push administrators to
rework the seminar to include a more diverse array of political voices.
The Rev. Corey Brooks, an African American and pastor
of New Beginnings Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, for instance, added
his voice to the Parents of New Trier group, asking them to find other voices
to politically balance the seminar. He called the list of outside speakers
selected to present at the event “very lopsided.”
“If the goal of your seminar day is education,
and not indoctrination, make it a little more fair,” said Brooks.
He also volunteered to serve at the seminar, if
the school so wished.
“Poverty, not race, is the critical issue in
the U.S.,” Brooks said. “The real segregation is economic, not racial. There
are no poor people in Winnetka, and no rich people live in Englewood.”
Other opponents similarly urged the board to
lean on administrators – who used the meeting to again speak heavily in favor
of continuing the seminar as planned – to change the agenda for the seminar to
include conservative political voices, offering “balance” to the voices from
the political left wing.
New Trier student Isabelle Hauser, of Wilmette,
said she disagreed that racism is “one of the major issues at New Trier,”
indicating she believed the event was designed by those from one end of the
political spectrum to shame those with whom they disagree – particularly if
they are white.
She said she has been attacked on social media
in “backlash” for her opposition to the seminar.
“No one should ever feel guilty for who they
are or where they’re from,” said Hauser.
And Tony Duncan, of Glenview, who said his
children had been “adversely affected by racial issues” in the New Trier
community, said he also believed the school had wrongly ignored the concerned
parents, and had silenced “a large voice in the community.” The result, he
said, would be an event that could be “easily dismissed” by students whose
parents opposed the seminar.
“Race is not a partisan issue,” Duncan said. “No
parent should be able to tell their child to dismiss an event like this.”
During Monday’s public comment period, those
addressing the board were slightly tilted in favor of those supporting the
seminar, as planned. However, total attendance in the packed auditorium
appeared to lean heavily toward seminar supporters, with roughly two-thirds or
more of the crowd regularly and loudly applauding and cheering those who spoke
in favor of continuing the seminar.
Students and New Trier alumni who spoke at the meeting largely
encouraged the board to allow the event to move forward as planned, saying they
believed such seminars and sessions were needed to ensure New Trier students
are not only academically prepared for college and the wider world beyond, but
also socially prepared.
They each appeared to agree the racially “homogenous” nature of
the largely white New Trier district and communities kept them from
experiencing the racial diversity present in most of the rest of the U.S.
“New Trier has a special obligation to educate students about
race, because of how homogenous our community is,” said Julia Stoller, a New
Trier alumnus who said she now works as a teacher in Boston. As she attended
college, Stoller said she “felt embarrassingly uninformed on issues of race.”
Others urged the board to reject “censorship efforts” from
seminar opponents. And a number of New Trier students said they felt the
efforts to shut down the seminar over concerns of indoctrination and “brainwashing”
were demeaning toward them and their fellow students.
Student Ryan Cason, for instance, urged parents to send their
children to the event, even if they opposed, because, he said, all perspectives
were needed to engage in the discussion and to create a true “civil discourse”
Supporters of the seminar also presented the board with a
petition they said was signed by thousands of others from the New Trier
community in support of proceeding with the seminar. At one point, they
unfurled a banner at the front of the room purporting to contain the signatures
of all who had signed the petition.
Following the public comment period, New Trier board members
School board member John Myefski said he supported the concept
of a seminar dedicated to discussing race and civil rights, but said he would
like administrators to amend the program to include some of the alternative
speakers or presenters suggested by seminar opponents.
“I can’t say it’s appropriate to silence the voices I’ve heard,”
Myefski said. “They’re not bigots talking to me, just people with different
Board members said they had each received hundreds of emails on
the subject, from opponents and supporters.
And board member Patrick O’Donoghue also questioned
administrators on why they could not incorporate alternative voices, or attempt
to address the concerns.
“There’s obviously something here,” O’Donoghue said. “Have we
not considered adding some of the speakers suggested?”
Assistant Superintendent Tim Hayes, however, said administrators
believed the kinds of speakers suggested were “major, keynote-worthy” national
figures, and not the kind of speaker the school would be comfortable calling on
to lead a “workshop with 10 students.”
Hayes did not address Brooks’ offer.
The other board members, however, while supporting the idea of including
parents in planning for future seminars, said they believed the school should
go ahead with the seminar.
Robitaille said he found “no evidence” the event had been
organized to promote a political or ideological agenda by teachers or
“I believe it (the seminar) is balanced and inclusive of
different perspectives,” said Robitaille. “The seminar will proceed as planned.”