A Culture War in Four Acts: Loudoun County, Virginia. Part Two: “The Incident.”
An Underground Railroad simulation at an elementary school brings a long-simmering political dispute out into the open, triggering a bizarre series of unfortunate events
February 5th, 2019. An educational consultant named Dr. Linda Deans walked to the lectern at a meeting of the Loudoun County School Board. Addressing issues like black student underrepresentation in the gifted programs and overrepresentation in disciplinary cases, she asked the board to remedy matters through more funding of diversity and inclusion positions. Loudoun had a diversity officer, but Deans stumped for a department.
“To be real about equity and inclusion, contracting out the work might be a good idea because insiders may be — hmm — influenced by politics,” she said, pausing to apply a dollop of contemptuous stank on the hmm. She went on: “I highly recommend that LCPS offer this serious work to a reputable organization, such as the Loudoun Freedom Center.”
The Center, where Deans worked, is a nonprofit founded by charismatic local pastor and new NAACP chapter president Michelle Thomas. The meaning was clear: Loudoun had race problems, and if the board wanted to be credited with taking those seriously, it had to make a financial commitment, and to the right destination.
Deans was followed by the Education Chair for the local NAACP chapter, Robin Burke. Burke and husband Steven had recently met with Loudoun’s Director of Teaching and Learning, and weren’t happy.
“On Wednesday, January 16th, 2019,” she said, “my husband and I attended a meeting facilitated by Mr. James Dallas to discuss our concerns regarding our son… being denied admission to the Academies of Loudoun.” She paused. “We are convinced that the admission process is disjointed, unfair and represents a clear example of historical institutional racism. Therefore, we expect now more than ever that our straight A-student [son] be unconditionally admitted to the Academies of Loudoun.”
The Board was silent for a moment, some members confused. They only set policy and had no power to intervene in an individual gifted admissions question. Also, the admissions process was blind: reviewers had no access to names or racial identities, seeing only test scores, grades, courses taken, etc. To some members, this was an obvious reply to any charge of “historical institutional racism.” To Burke, the blind nature of the testing was the racism.
The fact that Loudoun had race-neutral admissions was “true, therefore problematic,” she told me by email. “By removing personal identifiable information,” she added, “it is impossible to assess an applicant’s unique experiences alongside traditional measures of academic achievement such as grades and test scores.”
Burke had reached out to several officials about her son. After correspondence didn’t result in changes, she went public with complaints. Asked about this, she replied, “As the Chair of Education for the NAACP, I represent all students of color,” adding that, “These claims were brought to the attention of the School Board and the Superintendent,” whose “inaction led to the NAACP contacting the AGs office.”
Loudoun has a gruesome history on race and schools. In 1956, the county infamously voted to defund schools rather than follow the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education desegregation order. Not until 1962 did the first black student attend a “white” school. Segregation was essentially pried from the cold dead fingers of this county’s grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and suspicions in the black community naturally linger. However, the current controversies aren’t a clear continuation of civil rights-era battles. Some aspects may be similar, but the legal context at least is reversed: in place of a decades-long effort on the part of groups like the NAACP to expunge racial considerations from the law, the new thinking is that progress is impossible without them. Whether or not that’s a warranted belief is a separate issue, but it’s how the new debate is framed.
Heading into the winter of 2018-2019, a dispute between county officials and the NAACP had been escalating. This disagreement would eventually be memorialized in the aforementioned formal complaint to the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, called NAACP Loudoun Branch vs. Loudoun County Public Schools.
Loudoun’s NAACP leadership increasingly felt statistical inequities in areas like gifted admissions or discipline were explained by racism, and policy proposals often mere cover for perpetuation of an inherently discriminatory system. For a long time, they clashed in this with an old guard of county officials trying to cling to do-gooder liberalism’s once-standard position that a variety of addressable factors, including racism but also economics and other issues, were the cause of discrepancies.
The latter group’s idea for addressing gifted admissions once involved things like Loudoun’s adoption of EDGE (“Experiences Designed for Growth and Excellence”). The plan was to provide “intensive, engaging support” early in elementary school to talented-but-disadvantaged students to help them compete in the difficult admissions processes ahead. The school system had long been pushing back against more drastic action, like eliminating standardized testing, that might heighten complaints about a lack of rigor in Loudoun’s once-celebrated school system. The county had already eliminated final and midterm requirements in 2015, leading some parents to complain of their kids being left unprepared for college.
NAACP officials were more and more uninterested in those concerns, demanding direct intervention to square ugly numbers. In 2017, after data was released showing 88% of Loudoun teachers were white compared with only 48% of students, then-NAACP chapter head Philip Thompson threatened to file a federal civil rights complaint. “We believe we will only see an increase in the number of minority teachers when LCPS puts requirements on the people hiring the teachers,” Thompson said.
Rhetorically, this was walking a fine line, since Supreme Court cases like the 1977 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke had deemed explicit racial quotas in public education illegal. According to the Loudoun Times-Mirror, Thompson hastened to add he wasn’t “suggesting the school division adopt racial hiring quotas,” merely applying pressure to meet “targets.” However, putting “requirements on the people hiring” seemed to have a clear meaning.
By 2019, the NAACP seemed out of patience, moving toward the Ibram Kendi conception of equity, which holds that “there is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy.” As Kendi puts it, “racial discrimination is not inherently racist. The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity.” Loudoun in this view fell under the latter category, even if the admissions inequity, for instance, overwhelmingly redounded to the county’s Asian minority. (Ironically, Asians were also massively underrepresented in school hiring in 2017, making up 3% of teachers despite being 20% of the student body, though this fact didn’t make it into the NAACP complaint).
When asked about the legality of quotas, which she would later publicly support, Burke’s response was that the legal system itself was part of the problem and therefore not relevant. “As you are aware, the legal system has protected and in some cases perpetuated systemic racism. It was LEGAL to own people,” she said. She added:
“LCPS needs to make of amends for the wrong they have done, by helping those who have been wronged, African American students and families. Reperations [sic].”
Late in the fall of 2018, a group of fourth-grade teachers at Madison’s Trust elementary school in Brambleton, Virginia got together to plan the curriculum for Black History Month in February 2019. At the time, principal David Stewart was following in the footsteps of Superintendent Eric Williams, described on school websites as a devotee of an educational theorist named Philip Schlechty, by pushing a program called Project-Based Learning. Schlechty scoffed at the idea that a teacher was a mere “facilitator” of “personal development,” seeing the educator as a more muscular figure who helped ensure the “functioning of a democratic society” by “transmitting the collective wisdom of the group” through “authentically engaging activities.”
Loudoun’s schools touted “Project Based Learning” as such an “engaging” approach that fused the “3 Rs” (a Relevant, Rigorous, and Responsive curriculum) and the “4 Cs” (utilizing Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity). What did those seven letters mean, at a school like Madison’s Trust? In practice, that classroom instruction might be bolstered by cross-pollinating lessons with a gym class.
The 4th grade team that fall was working on a “PBL” on “Notable African Americans.” One of the school’s three PE teachers volunteered that he’d been to a conference years before, where he’d heard about a plan that sounded to him like a potential complement to any lesson about Harriet Tubman.
Ian Prior of the Loudoun parent group Fight for Schools later brought details forward in a story for The Federalist, and noted in a longer private report that this teacher had attended the 2011 meeting of the Virginia Association For Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (VAPHERD) at the Hyatt Regency in Reston. There, a program was presented called “Underground Railroad”:
In “Underground Railroad,” kids in a PE class are led through an obstacle course simulating the path of slaves to safety along Tubman’s famous road to freedom. Along the way, they stop at various stations, where they might be introduced to a “drinking gourd” to learn that slaves used the Big Dipper constellation to help find the north star, or help each other move through hula hoops, or watch a video about Tubman, etc.
Such simulations have been going on for at least thirty years, if not longer. One educator I spoke with who’d used a version of the program, Geoffrey Bishop of “Nature’s Classroom” in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, said he thought he first came across the idea at a conference in New Hampshire 35 years ago.
The most famous “UGRR” simulation is the Kambui Education Initiative, a re-enactment founded by Kamau Kambui, a former devotee to a Malcolm X-inspired secessionist group called the Republic of New Afrika. The Initiative takes place in a thousand-acre slice of Minnesota’s Wilder Forest, dates back to the late eighties at least, and is part living museum, part outdoors adventure. Anthony Galloway, a pastor and equity coach who does use the term “critical race theory” in describing what his “Dare 2 Be Real” program teaches, cites experience with the Kambau Initiative as part of his credentials. However, both he and the current head of the Initiative, Chris Crutchfield, vehemently deny that he or Galloway had anything to do with any public school programs. “It’s abhorrent to me that people might think that,” Crutchfield says. “If it’s not done in the right way, it can be problematic.”
In the end, the origin story doesn’t really matter. As the New Yorker wrote last year, “UGRR” simulations became a craze beginning in the nineties, long ago reaching into public school classes from coast to coast. Writer Julian Lucas described it as part of a movement to replace the old Schoolhouse Rock heroes with progressive updates:
The runaway has emerged as the emblematic figure of a renovated national mythology, hero of a land that increasingly sees its Founding Fathers as settler-colonist génocidaires. In their stead rises a patriotism centered on slavery and abolition, and a campaign to set the country’s age-old freedom cult on a newly progressive footing.
No matter who came up with the Madison’s Trust lesson plan, the idea clearly grew out of this same nest of ideas, with the aim of valorizing Harriet Tubman, Henry “Box” Brown, and other Railroad figures. Until there were complaints, there were plenty of progressive educators in Virginia who seemed to think these simulations were a good idea. A story in the Virginia Pilot from 2006 showed teachers boasting of how lifelike they’d made theirs.
In that case, a pair of PE teachers in Chesapeake “transformed their gym into an eerie obstacle course” and “allowed the school’s 800 students to experience a little of what the slaves encountered during their nighttime runs.” Parents volunteered to play roles as slave-catchers and “patrolled the gym to the recorded sounds of barking dogs and galloping horses,” and teachers added heavy doses of verisimilitude:
Students who made unnecessary noise or skipped obstacles found themselves caught and wearing gray construction paper manacles. There were no second chances. The slaves never got any, the teachers explained.
“Some first- and second-graders cried,” the Pilot noted, burying the lede just a tad.
A version of this was even officially approved for use in Loudoun County at one point, only to be discontinued years before the 2019 incident. Though the Loudoun County Schools declined to speak on the record for this story, it’s safe to say there’s disagreement about who signed off on what at Madison’s Trust, whose much watered-down version incidentally didn’t involve dogs or manacles. The Physical Education teachers are adamant that principal Stewart, as well as the Dean, Robert Rauch, visited the simulation in its first days — all of this took place between a Monday and a Wednesday on February 4th, 5th, and 6th, of 2019 — and gave it a thumbs-up. Other teachers and even Stewart tweeted about it in approval, claiming the students were “100% engaged.” Those messages have since been deleted.
An amazing part of this story is how close it came to never happening. “We would have been fine not going cross-curricular,” one of the three Physical Education teachers told me. “We’d have been just fine doing our normal stuff.”
Much later, what happened in the district would be portrayed as a white backlash against teaching the “truth” about America’s past. Buzzfeed for instance would eventually describe the Loudoun controversy as an effort by “right-wing activists” to “ban lessons and conversations around race, racism, and slavery.” A Washington Post article described local citizens as being against “efforts to promote racial justice,” and blamed Donald Trump and his followers for seeing “hateful lies” in “teaching about slavery and racism.”
Yet the triggering incident in Loudoun clearly involved an overenthusiastic attempt to teach students about the Underground Railroad. Any progressive’s knee-jerk response to this story would involve aching to go back in time, Terminator-style, to quash thoughts of sticking “conversations about slavery” in a period normally reserved for volleyball and sack races. The issue wasn’t teachers trying to sabotage an antiracist lesson plan, but rather trying too hard to teach one. Even if you saw it as problematic, it was surely the opposite of not wanting to “teach about slavery and racism.”
What happened next followed the pattern after simulations in Carrolton, Ohio, in 1997 (“Living-History Lessons Resurrect Old Wounds”), or Atlanta in 2013 (“Parent Says Slavery Experiment at Camp Went Too Far”) or Chicago in 2018 (“Illinois School Made Black Students Pretend to Be Slaves”) or countless other places: things went wrong. The typical complaint involved a black student coming home with a tale about having been asked to role-play a slave in school, followed by said child’s parent going somewhat understandably ballistic (“That’s when the blood vessel kind of broke,” is how one Atlanta parent described hearing his daughter’s story).
The parents of one black child complained about the Brambleton simulation, and what followed was a perfect metaphor for so much of what’s wrong with modern American politics.