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‘Black Lives Matter’ removed from Sarasota 5th grade curriculum due to critical race theory concerns

A cartoon picture of three black female students next to curriculum materials from textbook publisher Benchmark Advance.
SCREENSHOT: Benchmark Advances
A picture from the Benchmark Advance website, depicting some of the curriculum materials they offer in Florida schools

Parents of fifth graders received a letter this week alerting them of a change to the curriculum, though it did not specify what exactly was removed.

The Sarasota County School district has removed a mention of a Black Lives Matter protest from a reading passage in fifth grade curriculum materials, saying it “may be controversial” and “in conflict” with the Florida Department of Education’s edict not to teach content that constitutes “Critical Race Theory,” officials said Thursday.

Parents of fifth-graders received a letter this week alerting them of a change to a “reading passage,” but the letter did not specify the content in question.

“The text referred to a Black Lives Matter protest,” district spokeswoman Kelsey Whealy said in an email to WUSF on Thursday.

It was replaced with a “new passage” that “refers to a general protest march in 1963,” she said. (Scroll down for the full text of each passage.)

The decision to change what she described as a “vocabulary practice text” was made by the elementary curriculum department, along with the executive director, chief academic officer, superintendent and the textbook publisher Benchmark Advance, Whealy said.

Florida banned the teaching of critical race theory in June, a move hailed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who said at the time: “the woke class wants to teach kids to hate each other, rather than teaching them how to read, but we will not let them bring nonsense ideology into Florida’s schools.”

The amendment to the state education code also banned material from the 1619 Project, a New York Times magazine project that explores the role of slavery.

It also said “instruction on the required topics must be factual and objective, and may not suppress or distort significant historical events, such as the Holocaust, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and the contributions of women, African American and Hispanic people to our country.”

WUSF has requested interviews with Sarasota district leadership behind the decision to remove the “Black Lives Matter” reference, as well as Benchmark Advance, but has not yet heard back.

The letter sent to parents on Oct. 11 said the reference was in a “student book” and was “not available for review during the adoption process” of the curriculum.

“After further review, it was noted that one of those passages contained content that may be controversial and in conflict with FLDOE’s requirements,” it added.

A screenshot of a letter sent to parents of 5th graders in Sarasota County Schools, describing the removal of "controversial" materials
A screenshot of a letter sent to parents of 5th graders in Sarasota County Schools, describing the removal of "controversial" materials

“For this reason, the school district, after consultation with the Department of Education and the textbook publisher has decided to remove the passage in question from the upcoming unit and replace it with an alternate passage with content that touches upon these sensitive topics in a manner that conforms with state guidelines.”

Below is the original narrative, as it appeared in the 5th grade materials.

And here is the replacement text, which is similar but is set at a civil rights protest in the 1960s, instead of a Black Lives Matter protest.

Vonzell Agosto, a department chair in the University of South Florida College of Education, said such moves threaten free speech and hamper critical thinking.

"This incident, it's sort of the tip of the iceberg. But there are similar moves happening in other states to restrict divisive concepts, for instance, so this broad category," Agosto said.

"If you think it's only CRT that's being restricted, that's not the case. When we can restrict culturally relevant leadership, when we can restrict Black Lives Matter, when we can restrict discussions, and not even just restrict, but chill them, so that it doesn't need to come up," she added. "And people are fearful that they would be breaking the law."

Furthermore, the decision to change the text could even be seen to go against the portion of the Florida statute about not suppressing or distorting the contributions of African-Americans, Agosto said.

"The way that the politicians are defining CRT — or not defining it — allows anything to fall under the umbrella. So anything can get caught up into that interpretation. So Black Lives Matter can be associated with critical race theory, if you think one has to do with race, and so does the other. And if anything that deals with race, we can attach the CRT, then it could be potentially part of the restriction," Agosto said.

Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said many educators are concerned because of what he described as a "very politically polarizing environment in which politics seem to be driving the educational decisions, rather than the content and the curriculum that we need to focus on."

"This notion that our public schools, when they discuss race, are somehow by nature, talking about critical race theory is just simply not true," Spar added.

"Certainly, there could be a chilling effect on what teachers teach, if they are facing, potentially stiff penalt(ies) for just teaching honest history.

The letter sent to parents by the Sarasota County school district concluded by promising to “continue to proactively review the content taught to your children.”

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.