An exodus of educators: Resignations hit schools amid furor over critical race theory

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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."

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.

Shortly after last fall’s election, Hogan said, she started receiving letters from parents who did not approve of diversity initiatives and a districtwide reading program that included books by Black authors. One woman called her to say her work was “ungodly” and that she would pray for her, Hogan said.

Emails to administrators obtained by NBC News through a public records request show community members began to dig up Hogan’s old tweets, claiming she made comments that were racist against white people. In one tweet that parents repeatedly cited, Hogan wrote “new podcast alert” with a screenshot for “Nice White Parents,” a series produced by The New York Times that examines efforts to address inequality in Brooklyn schools. Parents inaccurately claimed in emails to administrators and school board members that Hogan had tweeted that “the problem in public schools is white parents” and that she was “blaming white people.”

Things escalated in March when the superintendent announced his decision to bar “thin blue line” symbols — which are black, white and blue variations of the American flag meant to support police — from baseball uniforms. Though Hogan had no involvement in the decision, she began receiving threats a day later. By the end of the week, the district had hired security to patrol her house and that of Terry Harris, another Black administrator in Rockwood who received threats. Hogan became too scared to come to the district office for work.

“While I was in a position of power, I was the lowest on the totem pole in terms of societal power, being a Black woman,” she said. “I was an easy target in the face of race and racism.”

Harris, Rockwood’s director of student services, was also growing concerned. On social media, people posted pictures of him with his teenage daughter and called him the “most racist person” they’d ever met. He changed his work schedule in response to the threats. Emails show he repeatedly offered to arrange a phone call or in-person meeting with parents to address their concerns, which he hoped would ease their anxiety, but parents insisted he answer their questions about diversity and equity initiatives in writing.

“We know what this story is about,” Harris said. “It’s about talking about race, and we are the two highest-ranking Black people in the district.”

He considered leaving his job to spare his family from the harassment, but he said he decided against it after conversations with a school board member, his mentor and his wife.

“Critical race theory is going to go away, but you know something is going to replace critical race theory and whatever does replace it is going to be race-related,” he said. “You get to a point where you are not afraid anymore.” 

 Related: “This has made people afraid to speak up,” one mother said. “They’re afraid that what happens to us is going to happen to them."

For Hogan, the toll of the harassment was too much. She submitted her resignation letter in April. It was a difficult decision, she said, because she loved the work.

“One of the biggest joys I have is being an educator,” said Hogan, who plans to work in the nonprofit sector. “But the job didn't seem worth my emotional and physical safety. Mentally, it was disrupting my inner peace, the stress of it.”

It’s a stark contrast from last summer, when Hogan believed people were ready to have “real conversations about race and equity and how those things were impacting all of us in this country.”

“I feel like we’re never as far as we think,” she said.