Las Vegas charter school sued for curriculum covering race, identity

By: - January 21, 2021 5:39 am
Democracy Prep at Agassi Campus

(Photo Courtesy of Democracy Prep)

A Black mom is accusing a Las Vegas charter school of creating a hostile learning environment for her white-passing son by requiring him to participate in the school’s social justice curriculum.

In the federal lawsuit, Gabrielle Clark and her son, William Clark, allege that Democracy Prep at the Agassi Campus violated the high school senior’s First Amendment rights by “repeatedly compelling his speech involving intimate matters of race, gender, sexuality and religion” during a required civics class. New York-based attorney Jonathan O’Brien is representing the Clarks. Marquis Aurbach Coffing is the Las Vegas-based firm serving as local counsel. The lawsuit was filed Dec. 22 in the U.S. District Court of Nevada.

The Nevada State Public Charter School Authority, which oversees the charter school, is named as a defendant along with Democracy Prep — as are the civics teacher, several school administrators, the school’s board of directors and the school’s Manhattan-based charter management organization, Democracy Prep Public Schools.

Spongebob
This Spongebob Squarepants meme was included within the Sociology of Change course materials.

The lawsuit has already garnered national attention, particularly among right-wing commentators who are critical of critical race theory and the concept of white privilege. The lawsuit is also receiving an assist from the International Organization of Families, an Illinois-based nonprofit whose work under the project name World Congress of Families has been designated an anti-LGBT extremist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

IOF is not directly involved or directly financing the Democracy Prep lawsuit, says O’Brien, but is instead providing an online platform for crowdfunding. O’Brien says that step was necessary because established crowdfunding platforms, including CrowdJustice.com, rejected him because the issue at hand is “too disagreeable.”

The lawsuit centers around Sociology of Change, a yearlong mandatory class for seniors at Democracy Prep. The Clarks allege that assignments in the course required students to reveal their race, gender, sexual orientation and disabilities and then determine if privilege or oppression is attached to those identities. The class, which was conducted virtually due to the ongoing pandemic, also included breakout discussions which the plaintiffs say students could opt out of but still created a “psychologically abusive dilemma” and a “hostile educational environment.”

instructions
A screenshot from Democracy Prep at Agassi Campus’ Sociology of Change class.

“William Clark was compelled to participate in public professions of his racial, religious, sexual, and gender identities, and would be labeled as an “oppressor” on these bases,” reads the court filing.

O’Brien calls it “coercive.”

“It serves no apparent pedagogical purpose,” he says.

William Clark is described in the lawsuit as having “green eyes and blondish hair” and “generally regarded as white by his peers.” William’s mother, Gabrielle, is Black and his deceased father was white, according to court documents.

Kathryn Bass, the Democracy Prep Sociology of Change teacher, is white, according to a classroom slide included in court documents.

Democracy Prep’s student body is 63.8 percent Black, 30.2 percent Hispanic and 2.2 percent white, according to the state’s K-12 data portal.

Gabrielle Clark, in an email to the charter school’s board of directors quoted within court documents, wrote: “My son is the only white student in this class, as far as we can tell. This teacher is blatantly justifying racism against white people thereby putting my son in emotional, psychological, and physical danger. This is not ok.”

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One slide from the Sociology of Change course at Democracy Prep at Agassi Campus.

At immediate stake is William Clark’s graduation.

The Clarks accuse Democracy Prep of refusing to accommodate the student’s “conscientious objection” to the course material by changing his grade or allowing him to take an alternative course. The plaintiffs are asking for the court to enjoin the school from denying William a high school diploma and accommodate him with “an alternative non-discriminatory, non-confessional class.”

They also want the court to declare that requiring students to reveal racial, sexual, gender and religious identities in a public-school classroom and in graded assignments is unconstitutional.

In a written statement provided to the Current, Princess Lyles, vice president of external affairs for Democracy Prep Public Schools, said the charter school network would not comment on pending litigation but “intends to defend itself vigorously in court.”

“Democracy Prep stands firmly against racism,” her statement continued. “Our curriculum teaches students about American democracy and movements for social change throughout our history. We strongly disagree with how the curriculum has been characterized in this filing.”

The State Public Charter School Authority also does not comment on pending litigation.

oppression slide
A screenshot from Democracy Prep at Agassi Campus’ Sociology of Change class.

Democracy Prep has been lauded by the Charter School Authority for making anti-racism a top priority at the school. The Charter School Authority and its board have said equity is a top priority for charter schools, whose students bodies are on average whiter and more affluent than the K-12 system at large.

Democracy Prep Executive Director Adam Johnson, who is also named as a defendant in the Clarks’ lawsuit, appeared before the Charter School Board in early December for a presentation on the school’s commitment to equity. He highlighted the school’s efforts to diversify its boards and noted the school was providing anti-racism training to all employees.

Johnson did not address curriculum, but presentation materials from that meeting note the school intends to “design antiracist curriculum for all content areas.”

President Donald Trump in September 2020 issued an executive order banning federal agencies and contractors from offering certain diversity training.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday — his first day in office — reversed that executive order.

Johnson told board members that the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the spring and summer of 2020 inspired the charter school to explore systematic oppression in schools. In the fall, the school unveiled a new five-year strategic plan naming anti-racism as its top priority.

The high-profile deaths of those Black Americans brought increased national attention to the issue of systemic racism and heightened calls for more training on issues like implicit bias. But that has come with pushback.

O’Brien says last summer he encountered “a lot of parents with cases (like the Clarks) but no lawyer. … This was an issue people were talking about but not doing anything about. I offered to help parents and that’s how the Clarks got in touch with me. There weren’t any lawyers willing to put their neck out on this issue.”

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and two mutts.

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