When Rydell Harrison started a new job as a school superintendent in southwestern Connecticut last August, he was excited to join a community that seemed committed to diversity and equity.
The Easton, Redding and Region 9 district, which covers two small, mostly white towns, had recently established a task force and allocated money to address the racial climate in schools. That decision was a response to the hundreds of students and recent alumni who wrote to school board members following George Floyd’s murder to describe racist incidents they’d experienced or witnessed at school. To Harrison, the task force was a sign that the community sat up and listened when young people advocated for change.
Things shifted, however, after the riot at the U.S. Capitol in January.
Some local residents started to complain that the diversity efforts were Harrison’s “agenda,” rather than something students and alumni requested. They labeled Harrison, the district’s first Black superintendent, an “activist” pushing to indoctrinate students with critical race theory. School board meetings filled with opponents lasted late into the night.
A mailer sent to community members from Nonpartisan Action for a Better Redding, a conservative nonprofit group, featured a Facebook post Harrison had written condemning conspiracy theories that fueled the Capitol riot, and it urged people to complain to school board members about him. Others mailers came from a political group called Save Our Schools, run by two Easton residents who no longer have children in the district, and questioned whether the district had a problem with bias and discrimination at all.
Harrison began to doubt whether he could lead the community on its diversity efforts in the face of so much opposition. At the end of June, he announced that he would resign.
“People have asked me, ‘Was it one flyer too many?’ And it wasn’t just this one thing,” Harrison said. “It was the collection of all of these pieces and the emotional and personal toll to be a Black man doing this work and facing very blatant attacks left and right.”
Harrison is one of a small but growing number of educators who have left their jobs after school districts became inundated in recent months by furious parents who’ve accused them of teaching critical race theory, an academic framework usually taught in graduate schools that posits racial discrimination is embedded within U.S. laws and policies. Administrators at virtually every district facing these conflicts — including Harrison’s — have insisted they don’t teach critical race theory, but conservative activists are using that label for a range of diversity and equity initiatives that they consider too progressive, prompting lawmakers in 22 states to propose limits on how schools can talk about racial issues.
“In education, we have responded to opposition with truth and facts and being able to say, ‘Yeah, I can see why that’d be a concern, but this is what is really happening.’ In most cases that works for us,” Harrison said. “But when facts are no longer part of the discussion, our tools to reframe the conversation and get people back on board are limited.”
“This is going to cause an exodus among an already scarce recruiting field in education.”
Kumar Rashad, Louisville math teacher
Against the backdrop of hostility to discussions of race in schools — and as five states have passed laws limiting how teachers can address “divisive concepts” with students — administrators and teachers across the country say they have been pushed out of their districts. Some have opted to leave public schools entirely, while others are fighting to save their career. The result in these districts is what educators and experts describe as a brain drain of those who are most committed to fighting racism in schools.
In Southlake, Texas, at least four administrators who were instrumental in crafting or implementing a plan combat racial and cultural discrimination in the Carroll Independent School District left the district this spring following a community backlash to diversity and inclusion efforts.
In Eureka, Missouri, the only Black woman in the Rockwood School District’s administration resigned from her position as diversity coordinator after threats of violence grew so severe that the district hired private security to patrol her house.
“This is going to cause an exodus among an already scarce recruiting field in education,” said Kumar Rashad, a Louisville, Kentucky, math teacher and local teachers union leader. “People aren’t entering the field as much as they were, and now we have this to chase them away.”
In Sullivan County, Tennessee, Matthew Hawn, a white high school social studies teacher, is facing termination after assigning an essay…