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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Conservative group says safe space for students of color in Wellesley violated white students’ civil rights

A parent walked to the entrance of Wellesley Middle School in March 2020.
A parent walked to the entrance of Wellesley Middle School in March 2020.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

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After the March murders of Asian American women in Atlanta, Wellesley Public Schools invited students of color to a conversation to process their emotions. A teacher said the discussion wasn’t for white students, according to an e-mail obtained by the Globe, but offered them other avenues to discuss the recent violence.

Now, a newly formed Washington, D.C.-based conservative group is asking President Biden’s administration to investigate the Wellesley school district, claiming that action amounted to racial segregation and a civil rights violation affecting the excluded white students. An anonymous tip sparked the complaint, said Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education, though she acknowledged she didn’t know if any Wellesley students or parents complained.

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“Students should not be treated differently on the basis of race, which is what this event explicitly does,” Neily said. “Racial segregation is a hugely serious issue.”

The group has filed at least five complaints since it was founded in March, including one against the Columbus, Ohio, school board for acknowledging systemic racism in its schools in April after Ma’Khia Bryant, a Black 16-year-old girl, was shot and killed by police there.

The complaints likely will go nowhere, legal and educational observers said, as presidential administrations have wide latitude in deciding which complaints they deem worthy of launching labor-intensive investigations over. Biden’s Department of Education likely agrees with the school districts’ attempts to acknowledge and address racial inequities, they said. But, they said, the complaints, and the furor they often unleash on social media, could scare other districts away from trying similar initiatives to support students of color.

The well-publicized complaints are part of a nationwide push by some conservatives to fight a recent wave of efforts by schools to address their own systemic racism and teach kids about the pervasive impacts of racism and slavery’s legacies, political observers say. Idaho has passed a law limiting such lessons; other states, such as New Hampshire, Louisiana, and Tennessee, are considering similar bills. The Texas House recently passed a bill that would limit teacher-led discussions of current events and discussions of racism in the legal system and ban teaching The New York Times’ 1619 Project about the powerful legacy of slavery in America.

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The new complaint was sparked by an e-mail a Wellesley teacher sent after the March mass shootings that killed eight, including six Asian American women, in Atlanta. The e-mail invited staffers and students of color in grades 6 through 12 to an online healing space, adding: “*Note: This is a safe space for our Asian/Asian-American and Students of Color, *not* for students who identify only as White. If you identify as White, and need help to process recent events, please know I’m here for you as well as your guidance counselors.”

But Wellesley Public Schools said in a statement that white students weren’t actually excluded from the spaces, no one was turned away, and in fact several white students did attend. The invitation was “imperfectly stated” and meant to convey only the space’s intended audience, the district said.

An e-mail sent by a Wellesley teacher that sparked a complaint filed by Parents Defending Education. The complaint attached this screenshot as an exhibit.
An e-mail sent by a Wellesley teacher that sparked a complaint filed by Parents Defending Education. The complaint attached this screenshot as an exhibit. Parents Defending Education

Amid a year of high-profile racist violence, the district said, the group’s purpose was for students of color “to come together to support one another in a time of grief and loss,” supplementing broader community and classroom conversations.

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“These conversations are often deeply personal and emotional,” the district said, “particularly as we have heard firsthand experiences from alumni and current students who have shared ways that they have often felt unwelcomed or have been subjected to both overt and subtle racial microaggressions in our district.”

In Wellesley, an affluent suburban district, 70 percent of students are white, 14 percent are Asian American, 4 percent are Black, and 5 percent are Latino.

The goal of the space is to help students of color feel comfortable sharing their experiences surrounded by others who can relate to them, the district said.

“Our use of affinity spaces is not meant to drive conversations about race and equity into separate spaces, increasing social divisions,” the district said. “Rather, these spaces are one element of many aimed at strengthening our inclusive practices so that all members of our community feel valued, heard, and a deep sense of belonging.”

A community group aimed at promoting diversity, inclusion, and equity in Wellesley praised the district’s use of affinity spaces, which offered students and educators places “for connection and support” in response to hateful incidents, said World of Wellesely co-president Nova Biro. Her e-mail signature noted the town sits “on the traditional territory of the Massachusett Tribe.

The complaint is the latest in a long tradition of some conservatives trying to use the tools of the civil rights movement against itself, said Lauren Sampson, staff attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston. She cited attempts to undo universities’ affirmative-action admissions policies and a recent lawsuit by white and Asian parents fighting the city’s efforts to increase diversity at Boston’s exam schools, a case she worked on.

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Parents Defending Education’s complaint carries no evidence that anyone was harmed or even that any local residents were upset, Sampson said, so she believes the goal is to spark headlines that “chill the efforts of public institutions to reckon with systemic racism.”

“To claim that what’s at stake here is an attack on white students is an affront to the civil rights laws they are quoting,” Sampson said. “We want districts and governments to innovate and to try to do better without having to think, ‘Gosh, now I’m going to be subject to this allegation that we’re not doing enough for the white students.’”

Under former president Donald Trump, the Department of Education launched an investigation into Princeton University last fall after it acknowledged its own role in systemic racism following George Floyd’s murder. The investigation looked into whether Princeton made false claims when it said it didn’t racially discriminate against anyone — an assertion that’s required to receive federal funds. That encouraged Neily’s group to file similar complaints against K-12 school districts.

“If they say there’s racism taking place in their district, we should take them at their word” and investigate, Neily said.

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But Biden’s administration has said it will aim to level the playing field for historically disadvantaged racial groups through its policies and likely interprets such statements differently, experts said.

If such complaints do go forward, they can be very time-consuming and costly for both federal investigators and for universities and school districts, said Sasha Pudelski, the advocacy director for AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Parents Defending Education’s efforts are promoted as grass roots but likely funded by wealthy corporate backers, said Maurice Cunningham, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who wrote a blog post about the group. He pointed to the group being represented by a high profile law firm, Consovoy McCarthy, which has worked for Trump in his efforts to keep his tax returns private.

The group’s complaints appear to be aimed at garnering attention to then whip up the nation’s conservative base to fight movements to raise awareness about America’s enduring racist history, Cunningham said.

“People see it and they get enraged by it and that generates threats, e-mails, and social media attacks,” Cunningham said. “It’s a backlash to the study of race and racial progress itself. ... It worked very, very well for Donald Trump, and unfortunately is something that is returned to time and time again by conservatives in American politics.”

Neily declined to disclose who has funded her group. Its public tax filings are not yet available.

But she said Parents Defending Education’s goal is to fight schools’ political indoctrination of children; if its complaint against Wellesley leads to other districts no longer segregating students, “that’s a good thing.”


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.