The Wellesley Public Schools (WPS) system is getting renewed scrutiny over its approach to providing space for students to process racial issues and national events after a new Washington, D.C.-based parents group filed a civil rights complaint asking the U.S. Department of Education to investigate.
WPS received criticism locally in March after memos leaked in which middle and high school students who identify as white were discouraged from attending an online healing space in the wake of the Atlanta shooting spree that left 6 women of Asian descent, a white man and a white woman dead. At the time, we heard from a mix of local parents supportive of and upset about the WPS approach as well as those who were weighing in from afar.
The administration issued a memo in March defending the district’s approach to what it calls affinity spaces. WPS has declined our request to be on its regular mailing list, and one consequence of that is that we only tend to see memos on controversial subjects, as those are the ones parents or students inevitably forward to us. One example of this came in April, when WHS Principal Jamie Chisum wrote to students and parents after an Advisory lesson that took place in which students addressed Black Lives Matter and police behavior.
While discussion had since quieted down about the safe space issue, the civil rights complaint by Parents Defending Education has given the issue new life. Initially, a couple of conservative news outlets (The Washington Times and Fox News) wrote about the group’s racial discrimination claims. Also hitting on the topic of WPS was Dan Rea, whose NightSide podcast for WBZ included an appearance by the head of the parents’ group as well as a call for Wellesley residents to take action when School Committee seats are up for renewal. Callers took obligatory shots at the town in general.
Media inquiries prompted WPS to issue a more elaborate explanation of its approach to affinity spaces than was included in the March memo. WPS stated it has been offering “affinity-type activities” for many years, if perhaps not by that name, and that it offers such spaces in addition to conducting broader conversations. It acknowledged that the aforementioned discouragement of white students from attending was”imperfectly stated,” but stressed students of all backgrounds were allowed to and did attend (full statement embedded below).
Additional news coverage has followed, including from WGBH and The Boston Globe, the latter of which included analysis of the parents’ group’s filing of a handful of other complaints since it got going. “The well-publicized complaints are part of a nationwide push by some conservatives to fight a recent wave of efforts by schools to address their own systemic racism and teach kids about the pervasive impacts of racism and slavery’s legacies, political observers say,” the Globe article states.
The parents’ group’s head told NightSide’s Rea that they are currently getting about 200 tips a week about situations to investigate, and that the tip about Wellesley was made anonymously. She added that it’s unlikely the Biden administration will conduct an investigation based on the complaint.