Spokane school board candidate Kata Dean claims her daughter was taught critical race theory. The teacher denies it

click to enlarge Spokane school board candidate Kata Dean claims her daughter was taught critical race theory. The teacher denies it
Kata Dean is running for Spokane School Board Position 4

In her bid for a seat on the Spokane Public Schools Board of Directors, Kata Dean, like other conservative school board candidates nationally, has repeatedly raised concerns about "critical race theory" being taught in the classroom.

And for Dean, it's personal. She's said that her own daughter was taught critical race theory —
a term used broadly and loosely by conservatives to critique the way race is being taught in schools —at Ferris High School last year. And she says that when she told the district superintendent, he was "appalled."

But thus far, Dean has declined to go into specifics about what was actually taught in her daughter's class.

That has now changed. A records request by the Inlander turned up a complaint from Dean regarding an article her daughter and other students in an AP U.S. History class were asked to read. It's called "The 'two-spirit' people of indigenous North Americans," and it was published in the Guardian back in 2010.

The article has nothing to do with critical race theory, as Dean acknowledges, but the author, Walter Lee Williams, was convicted for sexually assaulting boys in the Philippines — a fact the teacher was not aware of when assigning the article. That complaint prompted a meeting with Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard in which Dean says she brought up other examples of critical race theory being taught.

She tells the Inlander that those examples included how students in her daughter's class were given readings by Ibram X. Kendi, a historian of race and anti-racist activist who is sometimes described as a critical race theory advocate.

Dean also claims the teacher, Scott Ward, told "the entire class that they were racist."

Spokane Public Schools has maintained that critical race theory is not part of its curriculum and is not taught in the district. The district office did not answer Inlander questions regarding its response to Dean's complaints.

But Ward, reached by phone on Monday, denies teaching critical race theory or telling students they are all racist. Rather, he says he may talk about how everyone, no matter who they are, live in a society where they consume racist ideas that may need to be challenged.

"I've never blanket accused everybody of being a racist," Ward says.

Ward acknowledges he sometimes uses Kendi in his class. It's for the same reason: to talk about the history of racism and where it comes from. In fact, Ward says he uses Kendi to explain that people are not born racist, but instead live in a society that has been impacted by racist ideas in order to justify oppression.

And this is all directly related to the AP history class's content standards, Ward says.

"They ask us to talk about the history of racism and systemic racism throughout American history in many places," Ward says. 

But this, he says, is different from critical race theory, the academic framework that contends that race is a social construct that has been used historically to oppress people of color, is embedded in every part of society and must be actively uprooted.

"I've never read a book about critical race theory. I've never taken a course that is about critical race theory. It's something that scholars learn about in graduate school," Ward says.

Riley Smith, Dean's opponent for the school board seat in today's election, has said he's opposed to actual critical race theory being taught in schools because he doesn't think a graduate-level framework is appropriate for teenagers. But that doesn't mean classes, especially history classes, should be ignoring racism.

"I think we should make sure we are teaching anti-racist education, and that starts with teaching through different perspectives throughout history," Smith says. "Just because we're talking about race in the classroom doesn't necessarily mean we're teaching critical race theory."

Dean, for her part, says in the past she has had a fine relationship with Ward, and she insists she's not trying to damage his reputation. But she brought her concerns to the Ferris principal, and then to district superintendent Swinyard, because she felt the history being taught in Ward's classroom was one-sided.

She understands why a teacher would bring in current events to inspire discussion. But she says the kids "see clear through" Ward's political views. As a potential school board member, Dean says she would push to have any article a teacher presents in class be reviewed first by a district curriculum review group — especially if it involves political views. And she's opposed to teaching something from an "activist" like Kendi, she says. 

"We need to make sure the teacher's not pushing an agenda and that they're presenting two sides," Dean says.

For Dean, that doesn't only apply to race. She's supportive of teaching "the controversy" regarding the origins of life and thinks schools should teach different theories regarding climate change, according to a survey conducted by conservative Christian group We Believe We Vote. In fact, she tells the Inlander it may be worth considering teaching elements of critical race theory in the classroom, saying it's "worth having these discussions."

Ward, meanwhile, says he feels supported by Spokane Public Schools. He says nobody at the district office has talked to him about Dean's complaint, though he did have a "good conversation" with the Ferris principal about what he does in his class and felt supported.

Plus, just last year, the Spokane Public Schools board — which Dean hopes to serve on soon — passed an equity resolution that says "structural racism is built into the bones of our schools, as well as every structure in society."

That's why Ward says he's not too worried speaking up about what he teaches.

"If the district is serious about anti-racism in its equity policy, then there shouldn't be an issue," Ward says. "At the end of the day I think it's my job as a history teacher to teach the truth and the full truth and it being accurate and inclusive of our history that's oftentimes been suppressed." 

Connecting to the Spokane River @ The Hive

Thu., Feb. 29, 5-7 p.m. and Sun., March 3, 12-2 p.m.
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Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione is the Inlander’s news editor. Aside from writing and editing investigative news stories, he enjoys hiking, watching basketball and spending time with his wife and cat.