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Pushing back against understanding in Utah schools

The Utah State Board of Education (Photo: KUTV)

SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) — Controversial comments by a top state education leader have some current and former state school board members concerned Utah is headed in the wrong direction.

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State school board member Natalie Cline's social media posts have been filled with explosive, sometimes misleading comments. In her short time in office, Cline has been quick to attack proposed trainings with the aim of promoting more understanding of people of color and those in the LGBTQ+ community.

After 10 attempts to reach Cline, the Beyond The Books team decided to go to her Bluffdale, Utah home in an effort to get comment.

On our second visit, we were met in the driveway by her husband. His wife had just created a second controversy by suggesting a Riverton teacher was teaching that communism was a better system than capitalism. Cline had called on her hundreds of Facebook followers to take action.

In the days that followed, the teacher received several threats online. After strong pushback from the Jordan School District that Cline’s comments were incorrect, Cline did remove the teacher's name from her post. Unfortunately for the teacher, the damage had already been done.

After telling us that his wife would not speak to us, we asked Cline's husband if it was concerning that threats had been made against the teacher. He said, "anyone can make threats."

In addition to refusing to speak to Beyond The Books, the Jordan School District said the new board member, elected in November, had also ignored their invitation to have meetings about her comments and concerns. However, when it comes to Cline’s pet issues like inclusivity and anti-bias training, she is very vocal. In just her sixth week in office she called anti-bias training being debated by the board a subversive lesson plan meant to "indoctrinate" students to a radical, anti-white agenda.

The training, which was intended for teachers, not students, as Cline suggested, was the final act of out-going school board member and current teacher Jenny Graviet. Graviet said the training, that includes lessons on racial understanding and equity, appears be getting some pushback on the board.

MORE: Anti-bias training illustrates deep divides within state school board

Also, Graviet’s non-binding resolution condemning racism has been watered down by a faction on the current board. In fact, half of Graviet’s original language was deleted and a sentence calling "for respect and protection of underrepresented races" was stripped out.

Former state board member Shawn Newell was the only Black person on the 15-member board. He was appointed by then-Gov. Gary Herbert to fill a seat vacated by another member. He declined to run because of new rules that require state board of education members to declare a party before running.

He said Cline now has immense power to influence the debate on equity. He fears that debate in Utah may be headed in the wrong direction.

The one thing that I am concerned about is the fact that there’s that opportunity for influence (on other board members)," Newell said. "It's very troubling."

It appears Newell’s concerns about pushback against understanding of LGBTQ+ and racially diverse communities is warranted.

Earlier this month, Utah charter school Maria Montessori Academy made national headlines by allowing parents to opt their children out of Black History Month activities. Beyond The Books, through a public records request, discovered at least one teacher at the school disagreed with the move, and in a Feb. 2 email Randell Hoffman pressed the school’s director by asking, “Is there a criteria for discussing certain historical topics?" Hoffman called the opt out, “unusual,” and stated he “does not agree,” with the decision. Under pressure, the school reversed itself.

Beyond The Books spoke with current Gov. Spencer Cox. He said he isn’t aware of everything that Cline has said, and while he adds she has a right as a private citizen to express her views, he also said Utah needs to face racial inequity in the state, and anti-bias training, like that proposed by Graviet, is one way to reconcile with inequity.

“We've done some of that training here, and what I hear back isn't, 'Oh, this is awful, why are we learning this?' What I hear back is, 'Wow, I had no idea that this happened to you,' or 'I didn’t know you saw the world this way and that what I was doing was impacting you,’” Cox said. "That’s healthy. Proximity, getting close to each other, learning about each other, is really healthy."