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The Isle of Wight County School Board has restricted the teaching of so-called “controversial topics.”

It’s the latest local impact from a state-wide push most visibly spearheaded by Gov. Glenn Youngkin to limit certain topics in schools — typically to do with race, gender and sexuality.

The revised Isle of Wight policy forbids teachers from saying, for instance, that a person can be oppressed based on their skin color, sexual orientation or religion.

Several Isle of Wight educators and students spoke out against the policy at a meeting on March 9, saying it was meant to whitewash history.

Jasmine Johnson is one of those students. 

She took aim at the section of the policy revision that reads “there is no systemic racism or bigotry perpetuated by the United States or any government entity.”

“Historically, this statement’s far from the truth. Did we not have federally approved slavery for hundreds of years?” Johnson asked the board.

Other speakers invoked the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the fight for women’s right to vote in the early 1900’s as further evidence of systemic oppression based on race and sex.

There are many historical examples of American governments explicitly enforcing racial segregation, including in Hampton Roads. Norfolk passed a law in 1914 restricting where residents could live based on race.

Modern day data on things from criminal sentencing to home lending also indicate that many facets of American society demonstrate at least some degree of persistent systemic racial disparity.

Maggie Halstead is the head of the history department at Windsor High School. 

“Just because what I teach, per the (Virginia Department of Education) and College Board standards, does not align with the political or religious beliefs of certain individuals of this county, does not mean I’m indoctrinating our students,” Halstead said.

The move in Isle of Wight is the latest in a statewide push from conservatives taking aim at excluding specific topics from schools.

This specific policy revision is inspired by orders issued by Gov. Glenn Youngkin attacking critical race theory and banning the teaching of what his administration calls “inherently divisive concepts.”

Conservative elected officials have also led the charge to ban books for what they say is explicit content.

Isle of Wight changed a different policy in January to require parental notification for any material with sexually explicit content for high school students. 

In Virginia Beach, a Republican delegate and a former Republican congressional hopeful went so far as to try to have the courts ban the sale or lending of two books to minors over what they said were the books’ sexually explicit content. A judge shut down the case last year before arguments could even be heard.

Advocates say the books are often challenged over sexually explicit material, but it’s no accident that these books are often by or about queer people and people of color.

Vice-Chairman Jason Maresh, a recently-elected school board member from Windsor, indicated despite the substantial pushback from county educators, he believed the board has a mandate to take these steps.

“I campaigned in large part for the premise behind this policy, it’s no secret. And I was elected by 67% of the voters in my district,” Maresh said.

The policy change passed on a 3-2 vote at the March 9 board meeting. 

The two Black members of the board — Denise Tynes and Michael Cunningham — voted against the change.

Isle of Wight County Schools is a member of the Hampton Roads Educational Telecommunications Association, which holds WHRO’s FCC license.