On March 31, 2021 the education committee of the Rhode Island House of Representatives held a hearing on a bill related to divisive concepts such as critical race theory. Parents Defending Education was contacted shortly after the hearing and alerted to concerns that students from one high school had swarmed the sign up sheet, leading the committee chair to limit public comment on the bill to one minute. (Over 100 people had signed up, though it turned out that fewer than 40 actually answered their phones when called to testify.) PDE was told that one student answered the phone and admitted he did not have anything to say but had signed up because his teacher asked him to do so. Other students did present testimony in opposition to the bill.
After queries to the district administration went unanswered, Parents Defending Education filed a FOIA request on April 1st to better understand what involvement the school had, if any, with the large number of Barrington High School students who signed up to testify against the bill. We received a response to our request on June 10th and the documents (provided in full here) substantiate the claims that a social studies teacher shared her thoughts about the bill and then asked her students to testify, as did her colleague in the English department. The teacher’s promise of 5 extra points on the next unit exam was not included in the initial tip.
It appears from the documents that the administration was completely unaware both that students had been asked to testify on a specific bill related to education, and that they were pressured to adopt a specific viewpoint about the bill. There is no evidence that any students were asked to read the bill on which they were testifying (though it is certainly possible that some of them did.)
The social studies teacher who initiated the effort to get students to sign up to testify claims in an email to the principal that she wasn’t looking for one point of view, but it’s clear from the way the assignment was presented that she opposed the bill. In this local article, the school insists that it did nothing wrong; however, the FOIA results now call that into question. (The article also mischaracterizes Parents Defending Education’s position; we have taken no position on the bill, or any similar bills that have been introduced in other states. We merely inquired about this assignment.)
The full video of the hearing is here.