“MISD has awakened politicians about the safety of our children,” the flyers read in capital letters over a news clipping about the Timberview shooting, which was allegedly the result of an argument between two black students. The flyers, paid for by a conservative political action committee, warned that the Mansfield school district had “stopped disciplining students” based on “critical race theory principles.” As a result, it read, “Children were nearly killed.”
But the Mansfield mailer left out an important detail: Some of the local school policies it attacked were initially implemented three years ago, not as part of a liberal takeover of the suburban school system, but at the urging of the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott and the Trump Administration.
The mailers reflected a growing belief among some conservative parents, both at Mansfield and nationally, that school programs designed to address students’ emotional well-being have become vehicles to indoctrinate children with progressive ideas about race, gender, and sexuality. . The flyers, which were sent out in mid-April ahead of a school board election, also provided an example of how some prominent Republicans would respond a month later after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas – making a visceral link between anti-racism initiatives in schools and parents’ fears about their children’s physical safety.
The Mansfield battle shows how quickly conservative reporting has evolved when it comes to hot debates about education, racism and school violence.
In the wake of school shootings in Texas and Florida in 2018, many Republican leaders, including Abbott, enthusiastically supported efforts to expand school-based socio-emotional learning programs, which they viewed as a way to prevent mass shootings without taking action. take action against arms reform. Referring to piles of academic studies, proponents say these educational and disciplinary approaches help students cope with adversity and steer them away from violence.
Since last year, however, those educational concepts have been swept up in a move to rid schools of initiatives designed to tackle racism and inequality — a conservative response that experts say now threatens the programs Republicans once presented as a solution to school violence. .
Far-right groups and grassroots parents have attacked socio-emotional learning — and related practices such as restorative discipline, which focuses on character development rather than punishment alone — as a “Trojan horse” for critical race theory, an academic study of racism that some on the right have used to label lessons about racism and gender that they find objectionable.
Conservative activists have taken to the fact that some socio-emotional learning programs encourage children to celebrate diversity, sometimes introducing students to conversations about race, gender and sexuality. And opponents disagree with one of the underlying goals of such initiatives: to reduce racial disparities in disciplinary outcomes in school.
As a result, some Republican lawmakers who previously supported social-emotional learning have soured the concept. Several GOP-controlled state legislators have considered bills to ban social-emotional learning from schools. And many of the Republican proposals to stop mass shootings after the Uvalde massacre instead focused on empowering schools and police to crack down on students showing signs of violence.
“It’s kind of ironic that these groups are throwing social-emotional learning under the bus when these are the very things our kids need right now, and they need them now more than ever,” said Donna Lord Black, who leads the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for Texas, a nonpartisan group advocating for these programs in schools.
The result of this sudden partisan turn of events: Education experts say one of the few two-pronged solutions to school violence has been reduced to another culture war conversation topic — one with the emotional power to potentially convince voters and drive a deeper wedge between them.
In Mansfield – a rapidly diversifying suburban school district that includes some areas that are predominantly black and some areas that are predominantly white – political mailers who blamed the Timberview shooting for “awakened” school policies caused intense feelings among residents. .
The flyers feature a picture of a white child crouching in a school hallway with the words, “Restore safety. Restore sanity. It’s time for a new school board.”
VanDella Menifee, the mother of a black student who was in Timberview on the day of the shooting, said the mailers falsely suggested the district had stopped disciplining non-white children at a high school where three-quarters of the students were black. or Latino.
“I believe those flyers are designed to address parental fears and divide this community,” Menifee said.
Mindy Stonecipher, a white mother who has criticized Mansfield’s social-emotional learning and disciplinary policies, said she shared Menifee’s concerns about the political mailer, whom she called “extreme.”
But Stonecipher, who leads a group of concerned parents called Voices for Mansfield, says she agrees with the flyer’s underlying point. She argues that Mansfield’s embrace of social-emotional learning has tied educators with new responsibilities and left some feeling powerless to discipline unruly students — ultimately making classrooms less safe.
“This is a massive social experiment,” Stonecipher said. “And the public school system is the laboratory.”
‘A road to hope’
The Timberview High School shooting on Oct. 6 started with a fight between two students, according to police and video of the class brawl was later posted on social media. After a teacher broke up the altercation, witnesses told police that one of the students, an 18-year-old senior, walked over to a backpack, pulled out a gun and opened fire.
A teacher and two students were injured; no one was killed. One of the teens spent two weeks in hospital recovering. The suspected gunman was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Two weeks later, Bruno Dias, the school district’s director for safety, security and threat management, gave a presentation at a town hall meeting detailing Mansfield’s efforts to prevent violence in the classroom. That included a threat assessment and social-emotional learning program implemented under a 2019 Texas law passed with broad bipartisan support and signed by Abbott after a mass shooting at Santa Fe High School near Houston.
“It’s a requirement, it’s a mandate and we excel at it,” Dias said of the program. “It is important to note that in multiple instances we have been able to turn what could have become a pathway to violence in relation to students into a pathway to hope because of this threat assessment process.”