Criticism Continues in Wake of Controversial School “Diversity Day”

April 26, 2012
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Niwot High School's "Diversity Day" programming has drawn criticism

DENVER–Niwot High School’s first Diversity Day may be over and done, but the debate over whether it constituted education or propaganda continues to simmer.

As Niwot educators weigh whether to hold Diversity Day next year—and whether to expand it to a full day of workshops—parents are waging a public give-and-take over the merits and drawbacks of the controversial April 4 program.

Diversity Day is “contemptibly anti-education,” said Stephen Bailey, who said his daughter attends Niwot, in one of a dozen-plus articles, letters and comments appearing over the past two weeks in the Longmont Times Call.

“It destroys students’ ability to differentiate facts about various cultures against a standard of life,” said Bailey. “I did not allow my daughter to be disarmed from the necessary skill of judging what is and is not in her life’s interest. She was not available for the program’s indoctrination.”

Another parent, Melany Niemann, said in a letter that Niwot “did an excellent job providing valuable information for our students on Diversity Day,” adding that her daughter found the program “moving and meaningful.”

“We live in a world made up of complex diversity and variation. We need to teach our kiddos to be respectful of the experiences and backgrounds of others,” said Niemann.

John Poynton, spokesman for the St. Vrain School District, called the program “an extraordinary success,” and praised Niwot students for their role in pulling off a unique program that required shuttling each student to four of 47 different workshops, replacing the usual class schedule.

“Whether they call it Global Awareness Day or International Baccalaureate Day, this would be part and parcel of the twenty-first century experience,” said Poynton.

Asked about criticism of the program’s content, Poynton said, “I have no comment.”

Critics have accused the school of trying to avoid an outcry by keeping parents in the dark over the program’s more politically charged workshops. The school’s website framed the event as more of an international day, listing workshops such as “Indian Dance,” instead of those dealing with hot-button topics like gender identity, immigration, gender equality and “power and privilege.”

“Our students cannot even take an aspirin at school without our knowledge and permission,” said Susan Hammond in a guest editorial. “But someone else’s agenda can be poured into our students without a thought or parents’ knowledge. If all of the material was so wonderful, why were the workshop contents not made public weeks ahead of the event?”

The list of workshops was finally posted two days before April 4, but it included only the names of the speakers and one-sentence descriptions of the content. Michael Brown, a talk-radio host on KOA-AM, said he tried before the event to obtain the lecture materials without success.

“Why did they not allow Niwot parents or any interested persons to listen to these workshop presentations before they are given to the students?” said John Sowers in a letter. “There would have been good questions, opinions and concerns, and good opportunities for learning instead of animosity.”

The school also said in a memo that the Longmont City Council helped obtain speakers for the event, but that wasn’t exactly the case, said councilwoman Katie Witt.

She said Diversity Day was the brainchild of the Longmont Youth Council, which is sponsored by the city council and includes students from several area high schools. The council provided no funding and was uninvolved in deciding the content.

Witt agreed that “there were a few things that were edgy,” but noted that most of the workshops were centered on innocuous cultural topics such as “Indian Cooking” and “The African American Experience.”

“There were more than 40 different classes, so if you don’t want to learn about gay-lesbian-transgender studies, you don’t have to,” said Witt. “I have a daughter who went, and she came home and said, ‘Diversity Day is awesome! I want to teach children in Uganda!’”

Other parents said they were irked that the school required them to sign an “opt out” form in order to pull their children from the event, instead of allowing them to “opt in.” They also noted that some teachers promised extra credit for students who attended Diversity Day.

Even so, parents said the scuttlebutt was that more than 400 of the school’s 1,300 students stayed home. Niwot principal Dennis Daly did not return two phone calls from a reporter asking for comment.

“There were a few kids who really liked it, but a majority of the kids thought it was dumb and pointless,” said one student who asked not to be identified.

So far school officials have not said whether they will make Diversity Day an annual tradition. This year’s program took place on a late-start day, in which students report at 10 a.m., and there has been discussion about offering the event on a regular, full-length day.

“There’s obviously some would’ve-should’ve-could’ve about how things could be done differently,” said Witt. “All I can say is that it was a good experience for my daughter, and I know it was a good experience for some other students.”

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