South Middleton School District officials dive into critical race theory with ‘JEDI’ program and new ‘diversity, equity, inclusion’ consultant and program, ignoring parent concerns
In August 2020, outside the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg, two Boiling Springs High School alumni, Jacob Robb and Slater Ward-Diorio, lobbied school board officials to add “diversity, equity and inclusion” to the school curriculum. For Robb, he was lobbying his mother, who sat on the board.
On Sept. 8, 2020, South Middleton School District hired a school psychologist, Amber Sessoms, as a consultant.
By late October 2020, South Middleton School District Superintendent Matt Strine and hand-selected local school officials met for the first meeting of a “JEDI” steering committee, soon after launching a strategic plan, called “Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion,” or “JEDI,” to build “safe” spaces that ensure “every student” “develops their own agency and social responsibility by recognizing, naming, and critically interrogating the world to make sense of injustice in order to build a better world.”
Based on a review of the plan by Parents Defending Education, “JEDI” represents a Trojan horse for “diversity, equity and inclusion” ideologues to bring key principles of critical race theory to the school district.
For months, school board officials ignored parent requests for more details. Finally, they had had enough of the secrecy.
In March 2021, about 100 parents made local headlines at the month’s school board meeting, “questioning materials the district plans to introduce.”
The parents called themselves the South Middleton Parent Advocates.
The local Channel 21 story glossed over the “JEDI” program’s divisive agenda, describing it as an “educational program encompassing racial sensitivity, empathy and putting yourself in the position of others.”
Days before the meeting, a sixth grade teacher at Yellow Breeches Middle School had raised concern when she gave her students a book list called “Diverse Books,” recognizing “diverse experiences,” including “(but not limited to),” “LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.”
The list included a book, I’ll Give You the Sun, and parents read the warning with alarm, because the book included “drinking, bullying and rape,” with one line in the book reading, “I have a hard-on, a supernaturally hard hard-on….”
The superintendent told the TV station, “All of our students may need social justice, justice equity, diversity and inclusivity training and we want to provide that.”
“The last few weeks have been some of the most divisive that Boiling Springs has had in years. Neighbors aren’t talking to neighbors and friends don’t talk to friends. It’s a rough time for our district and our community.”
— Liz Knouse, president of the
South Middleton School Board told the local newspaper.
Many parents didn’t buy it, parent Katrina Scavone telling the TV station, ““We want to follow more the teachings of the great Martin Luther King Jr where character is what needs to be build. Where we need to keep the bar high but raise the floor.”
Parent Danielle Archulte said on camera, “To teach an ideology as a fact is inappropriate and not acceptable.”
Parent and coach Joe Salisbury told the superintendent, “You have one job and that is to educate my children. Keep your views off my children and do your damn job.”
In fact, the school district website provided a link to a “glossary” of terms, published by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, with definitions for words including “white privilege,” “oppression,” “racial equity,” “social justice” and “structural racism,” straight out of the playbook written by the architects of critical race theory.
Substitute teacher Andrew Fisher, the father of four children, contacted Parents Defending Education to express concern with the plan’s infusion of critical race theory. The school district headquarters is based in Boiling Springs, Pa. He did not seek anonymity.
In April, he posted a Change.org petition, ” Stop JEDI,” seeking the resignation of the school board president, Elizabeth Knouse, and school board member Eydie Rob. The petition sought Rob’s resignation, alleging hostility to parents and bias for the JEDI program. The petition noted that Knouse “has chosen to lie and deceive the community” about the program. By April 17, 2021, 164 people had signed the petition.
An attorney for the school sent Fisher a cease and desist order, prohibiting him from communicating with the school board. Within hours, after Fisher had a local attorney, Marc Scaringi represent him, the school board and district withdrew its cease and desist letter.
At a virtual April 6 board meeting, posted on YouTube, the board focused on the issue that parents wanted tackled: returning to school.
After she got wind of the controversy, homeschool parent, Deborah Fillman, posted a YouTube video on her channel, “The Reason We Learn,” analyzing the district’s documents for “gatekeeping” that “begins the adversarial” relationship with parents.
‘Natural Inclination’ consulting
The “Meet the Team” page for the “JEDI team” listed 11 members, the superintendent, administrators, teachers, staff and “Dr. Amber Sessoms,” listed as “Consultant.” The link to contact Sessoms took viewers to a website, aninclination.com, for Natural Inclination LLC, a consulting business featuring Sessoms.
According to her LinkedIn bio, Sessoms began the consulting business in November 2019 while she was still a school psychologist at Central Dauphin School District. She left that position in March 2021, according to her official bio, after 12 years on the job, starting in 2008.
On her website, Sessoms wrote, “I’d love to show you how courageous conversations can transform your organization.” On her Twitter handle @Nat_Inclination, Sessoms called herself a “Narrative Disruptor,” “Meaning Maker,” “Radical Connector” and 2020 Pennsylvania School Psychologist of the Year.
In another biography on her Instagram account @National_Inclination, Sessoms added about her credentials, “She consults and advocates for equity and social-emotional learning, and she is a champion on equity and social justice across the Commonwealth.”
Her media kit sold one of her key products: “Liberatory Learning Experiences.” They included the program that South Middleton School District adopted: “Building Emotional Capacity for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI).”
Her official bio states: “Dr. Amber M. Sessoms is principal and founder of Natural Inclination LLC, where she supports courageous leaders in cultivating liberatory spaces for individuals to be their full, authentic selves. To promote a culture of belonging, Amber utilizes her 3D Power Tools Framework to guide participants on a self-awareness journey to (re)examine the narratives that tell us different is bad or undesirable. Amber intentionally centers the voices of minoritized children, parents, educators, and communities by inviting all participants to build capacity by embracing vulnerability through courageous conversations on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI).”
Mid-Atlantic consulting ‘equity audit’
In November 2020, the “EDI Steering Commitee” (for “Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) completed the “Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium (MAEC) Criteria for an Equitable School-Equity Audit,” led by a consulting group, Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, based in Bethesda, Md., outside Washington, D.C. An “equitable school” provides “equitable resources,” among other things, to students, the consulting group wrote.
The “Assessment/Placement” section asked if “all levels of classes,” including gifted education and advanced courses, include students who “proportionally reflect the diversity within the overall student population.”
Not a big surprise, the consulting group identified work ahead in its “Equity Audit Results,”, including: “Self-Awareness,” “Academic Equity” with “Proportionate classroom diversity across all classroom levels” and “General Equity Practices,” such as “Develop equity policy (School Board),” “Develop comp equity plan” and “Diversify staff across job classifications.”
They fit into the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s “Equity Pillars.” On “JEDI Strategy Action Score Cards,” the consultant, Sessoms, was the lead on many of the tasks for the 11-member “JEDI Taskforce.”
- Pillar 1: “Self-awareness” includes the “EDI steering committee members” completing six “self-awareness sessions” and identifying “Equity Champions” that are “building level representatives” by June 30, 2021.
- Pillar 2: “Data Practices” includes “all principals” trained on “Sapphire Data Mining,” “Root Cause Analysis” for “inequity” and “collaboration with the CAIU on analyzing SWIS data through an equity lens,” by June 30, 2021.
- Pillar 3: “Academic Equity,” with “ELA curricula” reviewed for “culturally responsive practices” and by June 30, 2021, “district transgender guides will be clearly communicate to all faculty and staff.”
In the Nov. 12, 2020, meeting, the minutes include the point:
- “A cultural shift is growing to move kids from valuing grades and product to valuing perseverance and process”
At the Jan. 14, 2021, meeting, days after pro-Trump protestors entered the U.S. Capitol, the minutes reflected that the team “discussed current feelings about recent events in the world.” It noted, “Words that came to mind: Ashamed, called, disheartened, disgusted.” They then launched into classic concepts of critical race theory.
- “Discussed how imperial and colonial dimensions of culture inform definitions (i.e., diversity; equity; inclusion; social justice; race; ethnicity; Whiteness; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; intersectionality; racism; racist; antiracist)”
- “Discussed the history of racism in the United States (i.e., 250 years of slavery; 90 years of Jim Crow; 60 years of “Separate but Equal;” 35 years of racist housing policy; the “New Jim Crow”). How does this history impact SMSD’s community, curriculum, and culture?”
In a late January 2021 meeting, covered in the local newspaper, the consultant laid out an innocuous plan publicly.
By February 2021, the committee had curriculum changes in the works and a lengthy session in navel-gazing issues of “race” and “racism.”
- “Alli (English Department) discussed development of Social Justice course, which will count as an English course for juniors and seniors.”
- “Potential supplements/experts to this content would include: critical media literacy.”
By March 1, 2021, parents expressed concern at the school board meeting. They had started hearing about curriculum changes.
At its March 4, 2021, meeting, the “JEDI Steering Committee” discussed the parents’ questions, according to the meeting minutes. The comments and questions they noted included:
- “Yes or no. Will our kids be exposed to sexuality/sexual orientation preference discussions? Guilt and privilege discussions? Will they be doing bias, self-reflection activities? Things like that?”
- “Will there be opt out options for teachers or students who don’t want to consent to this ideology or this curriculum? This is something to keep in mind when planning.”
Impervious to the seriousness of the concerns, the minutes noted, “The team was asked, ‘What feelings come up for you when you hear these comments?’ The most salient emotion was ‘frustrated,’ followed by ‘disheartened’ and ‘communication.'”