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RI EDUCATION

In Rhode Island, critical race theory debate pits brother against sister

Westerly School Committee votes 6-0 against resolution that would have prohibited teaching “divisive concepts”

Robert J. Chiaradio Jr. addresses the Westerly School Committee headed by his sister, Diane Chiaradio Bowdy, on Wednesday night.
Robert J. Chiaradio Jr. addresses the Westerly School Committee headed by his sister, Diane Chiaradio Bowdy, on Wednesday night.Screen grab

WESTERLY, R.I. — People throughout the nation are engaging in sharp debates over “critical race theory,” and here in Rhode Island, even brothers and sisters can find themselves an Ocean State apart on the issue.

Robert J. Chiaradio Jr. succeeded in getting the Westerly School Committee to vote on a resolution aimed at preventing the district from teaching what he considers the tenets of critical race theory.

But the Westerly School Committee – chaired by his younger sister, Diane Chiaradio Bowdy – voted 6-0 to reject the resolution on Wednesday night.

In interviews on Friday, neither brother nor sister wanted to say much about the family dynamic.

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“It’s uncomfortable, but it is what it is,” Chiaradio said. “That is just the way the cards fell. She is the chairwoman, she is a politician, and I’m a concerned citizen.”

He emphasized that he has never tried to make the dispute personal, but he acknowledged the issue has been part of a rift with his sister. “I would just tell you we do not have a relationship right now, and we haven’t since about Christmas time of last year,” he said.

Chiaradio said he is a Republican and his sister is a Democrat. “But relative to this issue, it should be party-blind,” he said. “It’s got to be a right and wrong issue.”

When asked about her brother, Chiaradio Bowdy said, “I feel that personal conversations between siblings should remain as such. When one party crosses the line and shares with others, it often leads to misunderstandings and further discourse.”

Critical race theory refers to an intellectual movement founded by legal scholars of color in the 1970s and 1980s. It is premised on the belief that race is a social reality, not a biological one, and that racism continues to be a pervasive part of our society despite substantial gains in civil rights over past decades.

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Chiaradio said that over the past 10 months he has “uncovered a boatload of evidence that critical race theory and its tenets and pillars have infiltrated our schools – not only in the classroom but in implicit bias training for teachers.”

But Chiaradio Bowdy said her brother is wrong.

“As many students, parents and teachers made clear Wednesday night, critical race theory is not being taught in Westerly public schools,” she said in an email to the Globe. “It is unfortunate that with so many pressing (and real) issues, this matter has become such a distraction.”

She said the school committee voted against the resolution because “its content is objectionable.”

Chiaradio, who has created a private Facebook group called Westerly Residents Against Indoctrination, petitioned the school committee to address a “Resolution relating to Education & Curriculum” that would have prohibited the district from teaching “divisive concepts” to students, teachers, or other staff.

“We are concerned that despite assurances to the contrary, the Westerly school curriculum is at risk of becoming structured in a manner that results in the indoctrination of our students with radical social concepts,” the petition states.

The resolution calls for prohibiting Westerly public schools from teaching eight concepts, including the notions that:

● “the Town of Westerly, the State of Rhode Island, and the United States of America, are fundamentally and systemically racist or sexist”

● “an individual, by virtue of his/her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously”

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● “an individual, by virtue of his/her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,”

● “the success or failure of an individual is due to his/her race, and only to race.”

Wednesday night’s school committee hearing lasted for more than five hours.

And at the outset, the president of the Westerly Teachers Association, Colleen Saila, rejected the suggestion that Westerly is teaching “radical social concepts” in its classrooms. “We are not teaching any of those concepts today, nor will we ever teach them,” she said.

Rather, Saila said, Westerly teachers encourage students to engage in critical thinking.

“In history, social studies and civics, we objectively present to students the good, the bad, and ugly of our past so that we can build a better, brighter future,” she said. “Our students need to learn about the times when this country has lived up to its promises and when it has not because that is the honest truth, and honest truth in education is what our students deserve.”

Sienna Fusaro, a rising senior at Westerly High School, urged the school committee to reject the resolution, saying she had heard a lot of speculation about what’s being taught in Westerly schools. But, she said, “I actually know what content is being covered in class at Westerly High School because I’m in the class.”

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And, Fusaro said, she is not being taught critical race theory. “It is a collegiate-level concept typically taught in high-level law and ethics courses,” she said. Removing or “censoring” certain topics from the curriculum would deny students a well-rounded understanding of U.S. history, she said.

“To claim that Westerly High School as a whole is ‘indoctrinating’ me to hate America, or myself as a white person, is absolutely unfounded,” Fusaro said. “Critical race theory’s presence in Westerly schools is merely a fabrication.”

Chiaradio Bowdy called her brother to the microphone about an hour and a half into the meeting.

Chiaradio said he had confirmed his suspicion that the tenets of critical race theory are being taught in Westerly.

For example, he claimed the district has had a sophomore English language arts class that “teaches our kids about white power and privilege and oppression and how to demonstrate for social justice.” Also, he cited the “Reading Across Rhode Island” book “Stamped” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, and “the shaming and belittling of our teachers during mandated implicit bias training.”

“Westerly public schools, like many school districts in Rhode Island and around the country, have fallen victim to the woke hard left, seemingly abandoning and forgetting about all of this country’s great qualities,” he said.

Chiaradio argued that critical race theory “removes hard work, determination, grit and accountability as reasons for a person’s success and failure, and replaces them with one immutable characteristic: race.”

“After tonight is over, we will know whether our schools and our town will be steamrolled by (state Education Commissioner) Angelica Infante-Green’s critical-race-theory-laden curriculum, which teaches our kids to be ashamed of their skin color if they are white,” he said.

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Each speaker was given 10 minutes. And when he reached the 10-minute mark, his sister said, “Mr. Chiaradio, that is 10 minutes.”

“I’m just about finished, madam chair,” he said, continuing to speak.

“Nope,” Chiaradio Bowdy said, “you are finished.”

When he continued talking, she gestured toward a police officer, saying, “Officer?”

When Chiaradio looked at her, she said, “Yes, really. You have to follow the rules like everyone else. You can come back at the end, and then you can have another 10 minutes.”

At the end of the meeting, Chiaradio Bowdy joined her colleagues in voting against the resolution her brother had championed. But first, she took issue with “insults” that she said he has leveled against school officials over the issue.

“According to Mr. Chiaradio, we are gutless, uninformed, uneducated, unprepared, lacking knowledge, untruthful, small-minded, ignorant, in denial, and irresponsible,” she said. “When we have been asked how we feel about certain issues and we respond, then we are told our feelings are irrelevant.”

In short, Chiaradio Bowdy said, it didn’t seem that her brother wanted to learn what the other side had to say on the issue. “It was just his way or the highway,” she said, “and it’s a particularly difficult situation for me.”

While schools officials are public employees and elected officials, that “doesn’t mean we need to live and breathe everybody else’s obsessions,” Chiaradio Bowdy said. “We are also individuals, and we were elected to these seats to use our own thinking.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.