WESTERLY — The School Committee, following about five hours of public comment, voted unanimously Wednesday to reject a resolution that supporters said would protect students from being indoctrinated with the political views of their teachers and taught to believe what they said are aspects of critical race theory.
Opponents of the resolution said it would distort history lessons and cause books to be banned. Critical race theory, which holds that race is a social construct and that racism pervades the laws and institutions of the United States, is not taught in the town's schools, opponents of the resolution said.
Speakers both in favor of the resolution and opposed received applause, but if the volume of the clapping can be used as a measure, opponents easily out numbered proponents in the 80-person, standing-room-only audience in and outside of Council Chambers at Town Hall. Those who spoke included current students of the district, former students, teachers, parents, and members of the Westerly Anti-Racism Coalition. Administrators, including every school principal in the district, submitted written statements saying they opposed the resolution and supported the district's top-line leaders.
Several Black and biracial residents, some recent graduates of Westerly High School, discussed their difficult experiences growing up in the town and attending the town's schools. Two speakers questioned the veracity of the accounts provided by the former students.
The resolution was submitted to the School Committee by Robert Chiaradio, a resident who for several months has appeared before the committee claiming that tenets of critical race theory are taught in the town's public schools. The resolution sought to "prohibit the teaching of divisive concepts" tied to race and gender.
Colleen Saila, president of the Westerly Teachers Association, said that rather than teaching radical social concepts, "what we encourage is critical thinking in our students. In history, social studies, and civics we objectively present to students the good, the bad, and the ugly of our past so that we can build a better, brighter future. Our students need to learn about 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, who will be a senior at Westerly High School in the fall, said students receive fact-based, in-depth lessons on a range of topics.
"I've never been forced to think a certain way. To claim that Westerly High School is indoctrinating me to hate America or myself as a white person is absolutely unfounded," Fusaro said.
Kayla Kennedy, who graduated from Westerly High School in 2018, spoke in opposition to the resolution and described a struggle growing up as Black child in the town. She said the resolution was intended to ensure "marginalized people stay under-represented and inferior. They want us to disappear, but we refuse to let that happen again. I sincerely hope you take my firsthand account of just how vigorous racism is in the Westerly School District into account."
Many of the speakers said Chiaradio's resolution was tied to Republicans, Donald Trump, and a nationwide effort to promote an agenda while disrupting and distracting school boards. Anne Pearce, a town resident and member of the Westerly Anti-Racism Coalition, said the resolution was part of a playbook promoted by groups such as the Heritage Foundation, a conservative advocacy organization with ties to the Christian right. She called the resolution an "effort to substitute political mandates for the judgment of professional educators, hindering students' ability to learn and exchange in critical thinking across differences and disagreements. Our students deserve a free and open exchange about our history and the forces that shape our world today," Pearce said.
Chiaradio, who is Westerly School Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiaradio Bowdy's brother, said the school district has fallen under the sway of the "hard left."
"Westerly public schools, like so many 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 in favor of ripping apart the very fabric of our great country," Chiaradio said.
Shirley Lemay, a resident of the town and parent who said she is of Puerto Rican descent, spoke in favor of the resolution and said many of its supporters were afraid to speak up for fear of being chastised or called racists.
Carmella Sammataro, a reading and English teacher who serves as the school district's English Language Arts coordinator, said teachers had been vilified and slandered over the monthslong "politically fueled" discussion of critical race theory.
"Do those who support the petition truly believe that these professionals do not have the capacity to respect different viewpoints and facilitate a conversation to include all viewpoints?" Sammataro said.
School Committee member Robert Cillino noted the number of students, teachers and administrators who repeatedly said the concepts Robert Chiaradio claims are taught are not taught in the district's schools.
"There is no conspiracy that permeates the entire school system — the teachers, the students, the families, the administration, the School Committee — that is trying to hide critical race theory. It's just not there," Cillino said.
Cillino and other members of the School Committee asked residents to come together in unity to support the teachers and administrators to focus on education and the other needs of students.
Diane Chiaradio Bowdy said Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Alicia Storey and the School Committee had endured months of attacks since her brother first addressed the committee in October.
"Something that I'd like to believe started as true concern for students has morphed into something else. In contrast, the superintendent, assistant superintendent, staff, and School Committee continue to serve the best interest of students all day and every day. We're all about building our community and country up, not tearing it down, which is exactly what I see happening here," Chiaradio Bowdy said.
Chiaradio Bowdy and Cillino were joined by School Committee members Michael Ober, Marianne Nardone, Giuseppe Gencarelli and Rebecca Fowler in voting against the resolution. School Committee member Christine Cooke did not attend the meeting.