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Utah School Reexamines Allowing Parents To Opt Out Of Black History Month Curriculum

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is Black History Month, and schools across the country are marking it. But parents at one school in Utah decided to opt out. Utah law does allow that, and the school said OK. But after a backlash, the school is reexamining its policies. Jon Reed from member station KUER reports.

JON REED, BYLINE: This would've been the first year Black History Month was taught at the Maria Montessori Academy in North Ogden. It's about an hour north of Salt Lake, and census data says it's 94% white.

JAIME TRACY: I was happy because I was like, cool. Like, they're doing it, you know? They're doing Black History Month.

REED: Jaime Tracy’s daughter, a fourth-grader, is one of the school's only Black students. She's been pushing the school to have more lessons exploring Black history. But the email she got announcing the new lessons also said parents who didn't want to participate could opt out.

TRACY: And then I was like, why would they send this out? And I'm like, OK, it's probably just the law or something. I don't know.

REED: Utah law gives parents a lot of control over what their kids learn, says Jeff Van Hulten with the state board of education. He says parents can opt out of curricula based on religious beliefs or strongly held convictions.

JEFF VAN HULTEN: They have the first right of refusal, if you will, to kind of make sure that everything their student's receiving is what they would like and, when it's not, that they can opt them out.

REED: Some parents did ask to opt their students out of Black history lessons. School administrators aren't saying how many or what reasons they gave. Administrators declined to be interviewed. But when the local paper reported it, there was outrage, which parent Jaime Tracy was happy to see.

TRACY: It really did explode. It just shows how much backing there is and how much support there is.

REED: By the next day, the opt-out option was removed. But Betty Sawyer, president of the local NAACP chapter, says even considering it was troubling.

BETTY SAWYER: For, you know, the last 400 years, we've been having this push to have a more inclusive and factual history be told. And while those of us that are pushing, there are other people pulling the other way.

REED: Sawyer says she's in ongoing discussions with the school's administration and is hopeful they'll use the moment to make their school more inclusive. She says she's pushing for a diversity and equity council and hiring a more diverse staff.

SAWYER: They should have clear reasons why this is important, why we're committed to do this work and not to just give in.

REED: Jaime Tracy, parent of the North Ogden fourth-grader, says she's glad all the students in her daughter's school are finally getting Black history lessons.

TRACY: I want it for my daughter. You know, I want her to know how important this is, not just February, but why don't we just learn about this all the time, you know?

REED: Meanwhile, Utah lawmakers are considering a resolution to reemphasize parental control over what kids are taught in public schools.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Reed in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.