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New Trier defends planned civil rights program despite parents' criticism of liberal bias

Friday, February 10, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Kathy Routliffe, Pioneer Press


New Trier defends planned civil rights program despite parents' criticism of liberal bias


New Trier Township High School District 203 has rejected calls to change or postpone a planned civil rights seminar day later this month, saying it's too late to adjust the schedule, despite claims by some parents that the event is liberally biased and lacks conservative voices.

District officials and organizers of a parents' group opposing the Feb. 28 seminar on "Understanding Today's Struggle for Racial Civil Rights" met Monday to discuss possible changes to the program, both sides confirmed.

But Betsy Hart of Wilmette, part of a group that bills itself as "Parents of New Trier," said administrators wouldn't agree to add speakers or postpone the seminar day so more presenters could be added. Nor would the district agree to hold an event later in the year to present what Hart called "diverse voices to help problem-solve on race relations."

Supt. Linda Yonke said Thursday that it was too late to add speakers, since more than 80 percent of students have already chosen the workshops they plan to attend. However, she said the district will keep the names of possible speakers on file in case it offers similar seminars in the future.

This week's meeting comes amidst an uproar over the all-day seminar. Students at the predominantly-white school must attend one keynote speech and one homeroom class on civil rights, but will be allowed to leave either of the two workshop sessions they attend if they feel uncomfortable. Workshop topics include "Disney and Racial Stereotypes," "Media Literacy and How People of Color are Depicted in Movies, Sports, and Advertising," and "Emotional Intelligence in Race Relations."

Yonke said the day is a regular school day, and she has gotten only two or three messages from parents who say they will pull their children from school that day.

Opponents of the seminar day say it presents a biased and politicized offering of liberal viewpoints on the issue, though New Trier's website says the day isn't meant to promote the views of any political party.

As of Friday afternoon, more than 3,700 people had signed an online petition in support of the current seminar day, at

Mimi Rodman of Wilmette, one of the creators of the petition, said the large response has been a positive surprise to the group.

"We said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we got 1,000 by the board meeting.' We launched it last Saturday afternoon and it's gone crazy," she said.

"I haven't had a chance to do the hard analysis, but the initial read is that the overwhelming support is from parents who have direct ties to the high school. Either they're an alum or a parent or a resident," she said.

Meanwhile, a petition against the current seminar day had gathered several hundred signatures as of Friday, according to Hart. The petition is accessible at at the Parents of New Trier website, but does not list the number of signatures.

Hart said most of the signatures are from district residents and most are parents.

"The point is, this is not a popularity contest for the homecoming queen," she said. "Even if we are in the minority, even if that's true, our concerns are valid."

Hart said opponents of the seminar day don't oppose the group of students who helped develop the list of workshop and seminar presenters, nor did they oppose the two keynote speakers.

"All we're saying is that they shut down an avenue to fresh voices looking to solve issues," she said.

The group's website suggests that the seminar include speakers such as Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump and a critic of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Residents on both sides of the issue plan to attend the New Trier School Board's next meeting on Feb. 20 to present their arguments.

Even with only weeks to go before the seminar, Hart said the district could have made changes to the program.

But Yonke disputed claims by Hart and other opponents that the day's content ignores a school policy requiring balanced coverage of controversial issues.

"This policy was developed to address issues like sex education and evolution that were considered controversial," Yonke said. "The history of civil rights in our country is not a controversial issue; it did happen."

She said the day meets other policy goals that require the district to foster students' appreciation for cultural diversity, as well as the elimination of prejudice.

Twitter: @pioneer_kathy

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