MARTINSVILLE—The battle over public-school curriculum has returned to Martinsville after administrators across the state were secretly filmed while discussing their hesitance to use certain phrases to describe curriculum, such as critical race theory and social-emotional learning.
The group that filmed the administrators is Accuracy in Media, a national organization founded in 1969 that has become known for promoting conspiracy theories and misinformation. The organization is led by Adam Guillette, who founded the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group funded by billionaires Charles and David Koch, and was formerly vice president of media group Project Veritas, which has been criticized for subpar journalistic ethics and deceptive editing.
In the video, Jenny Oakley, Director of E-Learning and Literacy for the Metropolitan School District of Martinsville, said the district asks textbook companies to avoid certain phrases so it doesn’t set off red flags for the community. She said the community would support the content in the textbooks but may be turned off by the phrasing.
Oakley’s husband, Justin, said his wife did not know she was being recorded and believed she was talking to parents, not members of AIM.
Oakley never explicitly mentions critical race theory or social-emotional learning in the video, but the video is edited in a way that implies she is talking about those topics.
The video gained traction because people believed it was evidence that schools were deceiving parents about curriculum. Last week, the video was aired on Fox News’ Jesse Watters Primetime.
Critical race theory is a legal theory that examines how ideas about race and ethnicity shape law, politics, media and society. It is not meant to be taught in high school or elementary schools, despite claims that it is.
Social-emotional learning involves teaching kids to be self-aware, have self-control and develop interpersonal skills.
Opponents of critical race theory across the nation point to specific authors and curricula they wish to get out of public schools. Broadly, these include historian Howard Zinn, who writes books about the perspectives of those not usually featured in history, like Native Americans, the lives of enslaved people, laborers and other types of people that historically have been oppressed, and the 1619 Project, which is a New York Times initiative that recenters America’s history around the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans.
On Thursday, Martinsville community members gathered at the high school to support the administrators prior to a school board meeting.
Shawn Powers, a teacher at a school in Decatur Township, said he was there to support the Oakleys. He said he had graduated from Martinsville and has been friends with Justin since third grade.
Powers said legislators have been pushing to get rid of public education for years. He said he does not feel supported by the government due to the lack of adequate funding for public schools, although he feels supported by fellow staff members and administrators.
Superintendent Eric Bowlen gave a statement at the meeting about the video, affirming that the school district does not condone “radical principles” such as critical race theory and develops curriculum in accordance with Indiana Board of Education standards.
Bowlen said he was disturbed by the video and called it “highly edited and skewed.”
Bowlen said the school district is pursuing legal action to obtain the entire video in order to determine further action. He also announced the district would form a textbook committee composed of parents, staff, administrators and community members to ensure the district’s curriculum is aligned with its educational goals.
Sherry Walker said during public comment that she had been an educator for 38 years and had served on textbook committees. She said social-emotional learning is required by Indiana law and is already implemented in policies addressing bullying or career readiness skills.
According to Indiana law, schools have to have a plan for a student’s social, emotional and behavioral health. Examples of social-emotional learning competencies are regulating emotions, connecting with others and collaborating.
Carl Wagner, who has been a public educator for 41 years, said during public comment that labels can be dangerous. He said his teaching of books such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which delves into themes of racism and prejudice, and "Of Mice and Men,” which shows examples of the harmful effects of discrimination, could have come under attack if he was teaching at another school, and he was worried that those sentiments may come to Martinsville.
Other public commenters said they felt like administrators were deceiving them after watching the video. Some expressed staunch opposition to the possibility of CRT being taught at Martinsville.