Inside the fight for 'honest teaching' about race in New Hampshire schools

The critical race theory debate has heated up across the country.

December 17, 2021, 8:05 AM

Since the start of the school year, some teachers in New Hampshire said they've been on edge due to a new policy that they said punishes those who teach about oppression in America's past and present.

"If you raise a generation without a moral backbone to recognize oppression, to recognize exclusion, to recognize a racial supremacy, then you raise a generation that will be amoral when they become the leaders," said Ryan Richman, a teacher in Plaistow, New Hampshire.

"We'll have no sense of right or wrong, because we have deemed that even looking at ourselves in the mirror and recognizing that the realities of the past are criminal."

The legislation says educators cannot teach that someone's race, sex, gender identity or other social status is inherently superior to someone else, or that someone is inherently racist or sexist, among other restrictions. Teachers can be reported by fellow teachers, parents or others and disciplined for potentially violating this policy.

PHOTO: Ashley Hall, chair for Moms for Liberty, speaks at at press conference opposing the teaching of Critcal Race theory being taught in Palm Bay, Fla., June 25, 2021.
STOCK IMAGE/Getty Images

Some educators, teachers union members and parents have filed suit, saying that the vague language limits their ability to teach on racial and gender-based oppression, and may impede on discussions about U.S. history and literature.

"We're supposed to be engaging and challenging students to think about the wider world, helping them connect to ideas and expand their horizons," said Deb Howes, president of the union American Federation of Teachers in New Hampshire. "They need to allow for honest teaching, history, current events and literature too."

She added, "You could lose your career because you say something wrong or someone thought you said something wrong."

In the lawsuit, AFT-NH is joined by the American Federation of Teachers, "teachers in the New Hampshire Public Schools" and "parents or guardians of children in the New Hampshire public schools."

This new law is one of many that have popped up across the country and have been touted by conservative activists targeting "critical race theory" in K-12 schools. However, critical race theory is a discipline taught at the college and graduate school levels, according to law experts and academics.

It analyzes U.S. legal systems and how they have been shaped by racism and continue to impact the progression of racism in America. Educators across the country have told ABC News that critical race theory is not part of their curriculum.

New Hampshire state Representative Jess Edwards, who co-sponsored the bill, said that legislators saw what was going on across the country concerning critical race theory.

PHOTO: Ashley Hall, chair for Moms for Liberty, speaks at at press conference opposing the teaching of Critcal Race theory being taught in Palm Bay, Fla., June 25, 2021.
Ashley Hall, chair for Moms for Liberty, speaks at at press conference opposing the teaching of Critcal Race theory being taught in Palm Bay, Fla., June 25, 2021.
Florida Today via USA Today Network

GOP lawmakers said it makes classrooms feel divided or children feel bad about their race. Supporters of this law and similar legislation, including Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Texas state House Rep. Steve Toth, also claim that some lessons on race can make white students feel guilty or offended.

"I think just our experience with our fellow legislators, made us realize that something bad is going on in society," Edwards said.

The legislation does not mention "critical race theory" -- a strategic choice to avoid inflammatory arguments against the policy, Edwards said.

He said New Hampshire legislators found a parent who has been trying to oppose critical race theory in schools individually, and said the school was "not really interested in listening to his position."

Edwards said that some schools were rolling out materials "along the line of: Minorities will always be oppressed in this nation, whites will always be oppressors."

A national conservative organization, Moms for Liberty, tweeted in November that it would offer $500 to the first family in New Hampshire who successfully filed a complaint.

Moms for Liberty has not responded to ABC News' requests for comment.

"It's very chilling," Richman said. "You have this messaging coming down from the commissioner of education, restricting what we're allowed to talk about the kinds of lessons that we're allowed to talk about, what our students are allowed to talk about and the kinds of honest discussions that we can have about race and inequality and power. And then it's snowballed."

According to the New Hampshire Department of Education, the Commission for Human Rights and the Department of Justice, the law does not prohibit teachers from teaching U.S. history, and they are allowed to teach students historical concepts related to discrimination.

The policy also states that nothing in it "shall be construed to prohibit discussing, as part of a larger course of academic instruction, the historical existence of ideas and subjects identified in this section."

PHOTO: Yellow buses sit outside of a school in Portsmouth, N.H., Oct. 9. 2020.
Yellow buses sit outside of a school in Portsmouth, N.H., Oct. 9. 2020.
The Palm Beach Post via USA Today Network, FILE

However, the lawsuit argues that teachers have been targeted and intimidated due to this growing controversy about race and gender-inclusive education in schools under the guise of student protection.

"Teachers, including a Plaintiff in this action, have been made the subject of online harassment, obscenities and vicious attacks as a direct result of the climate of political intimidation created by and with the facilitation of various Defendants," reads the lawsuit.

Some educators argue that not only are their jobs on the line because of New Hampshire's new policy, but the education and future preparedness of their students are also at risk.

"If we're not teaching them that, then they are ill-prepared to deal with the world around them," Howes said. "They won't understand why things are working or not working in the larger society, and they won't be able to either change things that aren't working or support things that are. They'll have a harder time making their way through life."

In a message to students, Richman added: "We see you. We see your value, and we see that you have the right to have the conversation about race, about injustice, about history that you deserve, and we are going to fight for you so that you can be the kind of leaders that our country deserves."