Politics didn’t used to enter the schools. The elementary recitals and high school football games were where parents could put conservative versus liberal views aside, don the school colors and root for their kids.
But without that common social fabric in a year of social distancing, the Rockwood School District community is ripping at the seams, frayed first by the pandemic’s closure of schools and then shredded by a fight over whether and how to teach diversity in classrooms. The district’s superintendent and diversity director are both walking away, but educators in the district continue to feel under siege from a group of parents leading a charge against a diversity curriculum they say is “indoctrinating” their children.
St. Louis Public Radio spoke with nine parents, as well as district staff and administrators, reviewed dozens of parent emails sent to administrators and hundreds of social media comments made directly to the district or its employees, as well as in a secretive parent Facebook group. They show how what began as tense discourse over whether the schoolyard should be open has descended into schoolyard bullying.
Shemia Reese, a longtime Rockwood parent whose five children have been part of the St. Louis desegregation program, said district administrators deciding not to reopen schools in August ignited the fire, “and then all of these little fires jumped off. And now we have a wildfire.”
Another parent, Angela Murnin, is active in the district and has a son who’s a high school senior. Despite political differences throughout the large west St. Louis County district, Murnin said school was the one thing everyone could agree on. Until this past year.
“It just always felt like school was sort of the sacred place. No matter what was going on, school was just the one place that stayed fairly apolitical. We've been able to just coexist all these years and come to mutual agreements,” she said in an interview. “And now everything's just gotten so nasty.”
When the district closed its buildings last spring in the early weeks of the pandemic, Murnin joined some newly created parent Facebook groups out of concern for her kids’ education. Over the summer, parents split on whether Rockwood should stick with virtual learning for the start of the current school year or open school up five days a week again. Those in favor of more in-person learning circulated petitions and crowded school board meetings.
The most prominent of the Facebook groups Murnin joined, the Concerned Parents of the Rockwood School District, formed last year in the midst of uncertainty over the coronavirus. Its membership has dropped slightly to just under 2,000, including a few dozen who still actively post and comment. The group is private, but hundreds of posts were shown to St. Louis Public Radio by a member. The station reached out to a dozen of those active parents, none of whom agreed to an interview.
When Rockwood became one of the first districts to bring students back beginning in September, Murnin, who is no longer in any of the parent Facebook groups, thought that would suppress the fire. Instead, the winds shifted.
On March 16, Rockwood Superintendent Mark Miles sent a letter to district families that kicked up a storm. The Eureka High School baseball team had affixed a thin blue line flag patch on its uniforms to show support for law enforcement. Miles ordered it removed. His reasoning was that the patch violated the rule of the sport’s national governing body against having symbols that support a group or cause on uniforms.
“By following these policies, we are not diminishing our support and appreciation for police and all first responders,” Miles wrote. “The Rockwood School District absolutely supports the men and women who are our partners in law enforcement. They are our parents, staff, spouses and community members who put their lives on the line for us every day.”
But the next section upset many parents: “We also recognize that the thin blue line represents different things to different people, based upon an individual’s perspective and their unique experiences with law enforcement. Any political or potentially divisive symbol has no place on our uniforms.”
In reaction, Miles received dozens of emails from parents. Several supported his decision, but many also said that Miles was disrespecting police officers and veterans and that the district was being inconsistent by allowing students to participate in Black Lives Matter events.
In the district’s Facebook post regarding the uniforms, commenters hurled insults back and forth, with some defending the decision and others in opposition. The tenor of the argument then spiraled down, with name calling and taunting of fellow parents and Miles. Dozens of posts included such foul language the district hid them as inappropriate. They were shown to St. Louis Public Radio upon request.
The anger also reached the superintendent’s inbox.
One email to Miles that night, signed simply GS, first uses a vulgar term implying Miles is weak, then continues with: “The thin blue line represents the brave men and women in law enforcement who have lost their lives show some respect. Get a backbone and grow a set your an embarrassment (sic).”
“You are a disgrace,” Cami Fleming wrote in another email to Miles, one of the many obtained through an open records request. “I hope you sleep well at night and are not in need of law enforcement because God forbid you lean on them but refuse to show support for them.”
Fleming, who did not respond to a message on Facebook requesting an interview, ended her letter: “This is America. Land of the Free and the Brave. Neither of which you are. Good riddance.”
A large sign was erected on the side of a busy road in the district that said “Rockwood canceled” and listed Miles’ contact information. It was later torn down.
In mid-March, parent Derick Pratt posted a poll on the Concerned Parents Facebook group asking: “How has Dr. Mark Miles conducted himself (OVERALL) as the Superintendent of the Rockwood School District?”
The most votes were for “needs to resign/fired.”
Lindsey Reed, a parent who’d also emailed Miles opposing the removal of the thin blue line patch from uniforms, commented on the poll: “Honestly I had my doubts about him last fall," after he didn’t reopen schools, adding, "now though, it’s confirmed. He is not good imo.”
Three weeks later, despite his contract having been extended by the school board in February, Miles announced he’ll retire from Rockwood “and from K-12 education” this summer after two years at its helm. He declined an interview request.
Pratt and Reed also declined to be interviewed. But in response to the requests, Pratt called Miles “a good man,” and Reed said she is “heartbroken” to see Miles leave.
Most recently, the battlefield has been the district’s diversity curriculum, with some parents saying the district should stick to the basics and leave topics such as race to parents.
Rockwood’s high schools are ranked among the best in the state. It’s also one of the whitest and wealthiest school systems in St. Louis County. About 75% of Rockwood’s 22,000 students are white. Just 8% of the student body is Black, though it participates in St. Louis’ voluntary school desegregation program, which allows Black students from St. Louis to attend schools in the county.
“We should not be seen as the problem just because we are the biggest race by population in the district,” Amy Reed wrote to Superintendent Miles on April 7. “The goal of the district is to educate children in the curriculum areas, and for the PARENTS to teach about religion, politics, and sexuality.”
Many have echoed that sentiment and objected to Rockwood teaching what they consider “critical race theory,” which examines how race and racism influence politics, culture and legal systems, or using lesson materials such as The New York Times’ 1619 Project. They’ve complained it is indoctrinating their children by making them feel bad for being white and pushing what they believe is Marxist ideology.
Jennifer Spencer, a moderator of the Concerned Parents of the Rockwood School District Facebook group, has gone back and forth through email with Miles and Terry Harris, the district’s director of student support services, about the curriculum.
“As a parent, my first and most important job is to protect MY children and what is in their best interests. And being told that they are racists, or white supremacists, is not true, and is most definitely not in their best interests. I will not allow anyone to make them feel guilt or shame for the color of their skin, which we should know is NEVER OKAY,” Spencer, a white woman, wrote in one. She did not agree to an interview.
Rockwood does not teach critical race theory, Harris said.
“What Rockwood School District is teaching is how to make sure that all kids belong, how to diversify our curriculum, how to expand books and different thoughts and create critical thinkers,” he said.
Now some parents worry teachers will be scared to teach students about diversity.
“I do think it’s gonna affect it,” said Angel Bastida Salizar, who has a 6-year-old daughter in Rockwood. “If they keep pushing forward, I'm afraid that we're gonna go back to a place where I'm gonna feel like ‘OK, we're in the '50s again.’”
Some parents have objected to their children being assigned books with Black main characters including “Ron’s Big Mission,” “Stamped,” and “Dear Martin.” A few weeks ago, Natalie Fallert, a district literacy coordinator, sent a lengthy email to middle and high school English teachers. She discussed the number of complaints teachers have received over the books and other assignments.
She then instructed teachers they could avoid conflict by not posting the lessons online for parents to be able to see. “This is not being deceitful,” Fallert wrote. “This is just doing what you have done for years. Prior to the pandemic you didn’t send everything home or have it available. You taught in your classroom and things were peachy keen.”
The email was shared with some parents and posted online, angering many parents and drawing national media attention and an apology from the district.
“The message was not reviewed or approved by anyone before it was sent,” wrote Assistant Superintendent Shelly Willott in a letter to parents. “Asking teachers to conceal anything from parents does not reflect the mission, vision and values of the Rockwood School District.”
Fallert’s personal phone number was later posted on Facebook with encouragement to call her and Willott’s office asking them to resign. Janet Deidrick, who appeared on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” to discuss the email but declined to be interviewed by St. Louis Public Radio, called Fallert arrogant and an idiot for “planning to turn our kids into little SJWs” (social justice warriors) on the group’s Facebook page.
About 200 parents attended a panel discussion last Friday about the diversity curriculum and efforts in the state legislature to ban it. State Sens. Andrew Koenig and Cindy O’Laughlin took questions for about two hours from parents on both sides of the feud. At a few points, parents shouted at each other and the senators or complained about the answers to their questions.
“The sense of community that I felt pre-pandemic is totally different from the sense of community that I see now,” said Reese, the mother of five. “What I see now is hurtful. It's bitter, it's shameful.”
The floral pattern of Terry Harris’ necktie popped off his white button-up shirt and black suit jacket last Friday during an interview over Zoom. He said he used to hate the tie, a gift from his mother. But after getting compliments the first time he wore it, he now wears it every Friday because it makes him happy. He’s needed the extra doses of happiness this year.
Harris, who graduated from Rockwood’s Lafayette High under the desegregation program, has worked for the district for 15 years. Recently, his wife has stopped asking him how his days are going. They’re too difficult to talk about.
A post in the Concerned Parents Facebook group called Harris “the cancer of the Rockwood School District.” A tweet directed to him and the district’s director of educational equity and diversity, Brittany Hogan, said they should “go to a failing school district that is predominately POC” and “be the change there.”
Harris and Hogan, who are both Black, have each received death threats this spring they confirmed, which prompted the district to hire private security for them. Security was also increased at school board meetings.
“It gets to you, it gets to your family,” Harris said of the messages and threats. “And you're simply trying to do a job to make sure that all kids are OK.”
But he said he tries to approach them with grace and has “done the work” to be able to talk about them.
“There’s a level of hurt and harm that’s been caused,” he said. “I think right now there's a lack of trust, and so everyone is coming from this space of wrongdoing. And we've lost focus on the students.”
Hogan, the director of equity and diversity, is leaving at the end of the year. She had received blowback to book and podcast recommendations she made on social media. A moderator of the Concerned Parents group, Spencer, accused Hogan of pushing “blatant racism” against white people in emails to Miles and Harris.
Late last month, the school board approved hiring Jameelah Spann, a Black woman, to be assistant principal at its South Middle School. Parents on the Concerned Parents group began sharing her personal court records.
“Her bankruptcy would indicate that she is irresponsible with finances. That’s a red flag, in my opinion,” wrote Spencer in a post sharing the news on the Facebook group.
In comments, other parents questioned her teaching ability coming from a St. Louis Public Schools’ high school in a district one parent called “an awful school system.” Another called Harris-Stowe State University, the historically Black college where Spann is an adjunct professor, “a complete (expletive) joke.”
“Just trying to get more teachers ‘who look like the students’ according to Terry Harris. I hope they are choosing based on ability, and not just looks. Our students’ success depends on it,” Deidrick wrote.
Dozens of district staff members have signed on to two letters to the school board obtained by St. Louis Public Radio, asking the board to make a statement “denouncing any violent threats and hate speech towards our staff and students of color.”
Jaime Bayes, the school board president, declined to comment on the letters but said in an interview about the harassment Spann has received since being hired that “my goal for her would be to make sure that she feels welcome here. And I think if there is work being done to the opposite of that, then I think that is extremely unfortunate.”
Educators in Rockwood said they are feeling additional pressure, anxiety and fear.
“I don’t know where we’re going from here,” said a district employee who is Black but asked not to be named. “I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney