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Teachers in New Hampshire face new legal threats for teaching so-called ‘divisive concepts’ on race: ‘It’s psychological warfare’

teachers-in-new-hampshire-face-new-legal-threats-for-teaching-so-called-‘divisive-concepts’-on-race:-‘it’s-psychological-warfare’
Valerie Wolfson

(DURHAM, N.H.) — In June, New Hampshire passed the “Right to Freedom From Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education,” a law that conservative activists say prohibits critical race theory from being taught in schools.

Recently, GOP lawmakers have used “critical race theory” as a catch phrase to energize their base, saying that it makes classrooms feel divided or children feel bad about their race, especially white kids.

Although most of the political arguments have focused on elementary, middle and high school, in actuality, critical race theory is a curriculum most often taught at the college and graduate school level about systems and educational philosophies that have morphed based on concepts like race. It’s not taught below the college level.

New Hampshire is one of six states that have enacted policies based on anti-critical race theory rhetoric. The bill was introduced as a ban on “divisive concepts,” and restricts the way educators can teach about race and gender in the classroom.

The law is enforced by everyday citizens who can use a new web portal to report teachers. If someone believes that a teacher has violated the law, they can sue the school district and the New Hampshire State Board of Education can discipline a teacher by terminating their position or stripping their teaching license.

Valerie Wolfson, who teaches eighth-grade social studies at Oyster River Middle School in Durham, New Hampshire, said the nature and vague wording of the law is problematic.

“The current language is very much focused on a false premise that somehow teachers are actively discriminating against students or teaching that one group is inferior or superior to another. The language is incredibly nebulous,” Wolfson told ABC News’ “Start Here” podcast. “The law does not spell out anything about what I can and can’t teach.”

Wolfson pointed to how she has to teach her students about the founding of America. She uses three different perspectives: the Indigenous perspective, European perspective and African perspective.

“[The perspectives] are going to be very different,” said Wolfson. “We began our school year understanding the complexity and depth and level of sophistication of Indigenous Nations pre-European contact. Many of my students said they have never learned this much information about Indigenous groups until now.”

She said that under typical circumstances, if a parent is concerned about the curriculum or they way it’s being taught, they reach out to the teacher and the teacher’s administrator to have a discussion.

“Under the new law, families can bypass all of those steps and go right to the state,” said Wolfson, who explained that people fill out an online form found on the state’s website to report teachers.

“What if I make a mistake? What if I’m very tired that day and I don’t frame things in a way that’s going to ensure everyone feels OK?” added Wolfson.

The Commissioner of New Hampshire’s Department of Education, Frank Edelblut, defended the use of the report form. He said that every position with licenses in the state of New Hampshire has the same type of web portals, where people can bring complaints that are handled by impartial adjudicators.

A national conservative organization, Moms for Liberty, tweeted Friday that they’d offer $500 to the first family in New Hampshire who successfully files a complaint.

Wolfson said that the new law makes an already difficult job more challenging. She also noted that opinions often do matter when helping students understand complex topics like slavery.

“The idea that teachers must be neutral beings with no moral compass is actually quite troubling,” she said.

While she said she won’t avoid teaching the tough topics, she said she will have to be cautious moving forward.

“They soften the language, but the bottom line is if they find fault, a teacher could lose their teaching license permanently,” she said. “It’s a form of psychological warfare against educators.”

This report was featured in the Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021 episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

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