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Critical race theory debated from both sides during contentious town hall

Event was disavowed by commission’s chairwoman as not germane to the group’s work

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CRT town hall hosted by GOP-appointed Racial and Social Justice commission

London Steverson, Charles “Mac” Haddow and Erica Tredinnick, GOP-appointed members of Prince William County’s Racial and Social Justice Commission, listen from the stage at the Patriot High School auditorium during a town hall meeting they called to discuss critical race theory. 

A contentious town hall meeting on “critical race theory” hosted by three Republican-appointed members of the Prince William Racial and Social Justice Commission drew more than 50 attendees to Patriot High School Tuesday evening, with people on both sides of the issue expressing their feelings about the topic. 

Commissioners Mac Haddow (Coles) Erica Tredinnick (Gainesville) and London Steverson (Brentsville) hosted the event. Prince William County Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, booked the Patriot High School auditorium for the event, according to School Division spokeswoman Diana Gulotta. 

The term critical race theory has recently become a political buzz word among conservatives. The term was first coined in 1989 by attorney and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. One of its central tenets is that racism is structural rather than only personal, and that laws and institutional practices can have racist outcomes without racist intent.

Critical race theory is not a part of classroom teaching. Prince William County school board members and school division officials have said it is not being taught in Prince William County schools. 

The commissioners began the town hall, however, with a 25-minute Power Point presentation that suggested the county school division and school board are lying about whether CRT is being taught in school. The commissioners cited instances in when the U.S. government lied to or misled the public in the past, like the Pentagon Papers and the Tuskegee experiment, apparently suggesting similar coverups were happening in Prince William County schools. 

“I can tell you pretty conclusively that the representations made by various school officials is correct, that we don’t have a textbook that says critical race theory,” Haddow said. But, he added, “Look at the significant times the government lied to us … Can we trust the government when they say they’re not doing this?” 

After the presentation, Haddow urged the audience to “come to the same conclusion I have, that no one can credibly say that we’re not teaching critical race theory in our schools.”

About 55 people attended the meeting, and 17 people spoke during public comment time. Ten people spoke against critical race theory being taught in schools. Of those, many said they fear that teaching it in schools will steer the country in a direction they don’t agree with. 

The other seven largely spoke about the need to ensure schools are teaching a truthful history of the United States government’s role in past systemic abuses of racial and ethnic minorities, or to advocate for creating a more inclusive environment at Prince William County schools. 

“This country, this county, has repeatedly omitted things from their teaching. I want the full truth. I don’t want a half-truth. And I’m tired of things being omitted,” said Richard Jessie, a retired Marine officer, member of the local NAACP and husband of School Board member Lillie Jessie (Occoquan).

The town hall ended with a question-and-answer session in which the commissioners fielded questions from the audience. They were asked on several occasions to show the audience how critical race theory is being taught in Prince William County schools but appeared to struggle to provide any tangible evidence in the school’s curriculum.

“I don’t have the answers … All I can say is that with my three kids, they’ve all experienced something being taught to them that I would label as not okay within this realm. I don’t know if it’s critical race theory,” Tredinnick said. 

In a statement, she said the town hall "is separate from the mission of the Racial and Social Commission" and that the commission is "not responsible for promoting, reviewing or discussing critical race theory."

The event also raised questions about whether the three commissioners violated of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, which requires that gatherings that include three or more members of elected bodies or appointed commissions properly advertise and document such events. A flyer for the event was posted to the Racial and Social Justice Commission’s website by Wednesday night, and Haddow made an audio recording of the discussion.

Both Haddow and Tredinnick said after the meeting that the town hall had not violated any FOIA or open meeting rules because the event was advertised and recorded.

The 12-member Racial and Social Justice Commission is tasked by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors with examining racial issues in county government services, schools and the police department and to identify potential areas of improvement. The commission’s goal is to create a report with policy recommendations for the board to consider by early December 2021.

The commission began meeting in January 2021. The Racial and Social Justice Commission’s next meeting is Oct. 21 at 6:30 p.m. 

Reach Daniel Berti at dberti@fauquier.com

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