The intervention of a state lawmaker after conservative constituents complained about social media posts by a school district staff trainer leads the Guilford County Schools superintendent to swiftly cut ties with the consultant.
A tweet conjuring images of a dystopian inferno and a conservative backlash resulted in a swift decision by Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras to end a consulting arrangement with an equity trainer.
A Jan. 9 tweet heralded the conclusion of Kimya N. Dennis’ work for the district. “Just did my final gender discrimination training for Guilford County Schools principals,” she wrote. “Wonderful changes happening in schools and increasing gender justice.”
But it was another tweet, sent the day before, that caught the attention of conservative parents who are skeptical of the administration’s efforts to improve diversity and inclusion, and are hostile towards Contreras’ leadership.
“This week I have nine (9) trainings-presentations for school assistant principals and school principals,” Dennis tweeted. “My trainings-presentations include a request that most books used in schools be burned.
“Stop using white history, white mathematics and white science as the foundation.”
Marc Ridgill, a retired Greensboro police officer previously assigned as a school resource officer to Grimsley High School and former candidate for school board, posted a screenshot of the tweet on his Facebook page, writing, “I knew this woman was a bit ‘radical’ but this is over the top. I also did not know how often Contreras uses her for ‘training.’” Ridgill tagged school board members Anita Sharpe, Linda Welborn, Patrick Tillman and Darlene Garrett, along with Guilford County Commissioners Justin Conrad, Alan Branson, Jeff Phillips and Hank Henning.
Over the next four days, Ridgill’s post catalyzed more than 200 comments and dozens of shares. The responses that flooded onto Ridgill’s page were harsh and soaked in disbelief: “SICK”; “WTH?! And how much do our tax dollars pay her?!”; “This is racist yet okay???”; “Book burning… great. This woman is out of her freaking mind.”
Among the first to weigh in was Rep. Jon Hardister, a Guilford County lawmaker who serves as the Republican majority whip in the state House in Raleigh.
“This is very shameful,” Hardister wrote on Facebook.
Tillman thanked Ridgill for sharing the tweet.
“‘Burning books’???” he wrote. “Really? This 1984 Orwellian philosophy is so irresponsible for someone in education.”
The controversy generated a story the next day at the College Fix, a right-leaning website that takes aim at liberal professors and administrators, and that has ties to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
By Jan. 13, Hardister had results to report to the conservative constituents.
“Over the weekend I spoke with Superintendent Sharon Contreras to express my concern about the racially charged tweet that was sent out by Dr. Dennis, who did mental health, gender discrimination, and Title IX training for GCS,” Hardister wrote.
Hardister reported that Contreras told him in response: “When I received this, I directed staff to end our relationship with her even though it was not in reference to our district.”
Chief of Schools Tony Watlington, the administrator with direct supervisory responsibility for principals, told Triad City Beat that school officials determined that Dennis’ social-media posts were “inappropriate,” adding that they “don’t reflect the views or values of Guilford County Schools.”
Watlington also said that Dennis came with “stellar academic credentials.”
Dennis earned a doctorate in sociology from NC State University in 2010 and chaired the Department of Sociology and Criminal Studies at Salem College through August 2019. She recently served on the board of directors for the Mental Health Association in Forsyth County, Forsyth Futures and the North Carolina chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Dennis has also extensively applied her academic expertise in public settings. Among many community presentations, Dennis led a seminar called “African-American Healthcare Access” at the Winston-Salem Juneteenth Festival in 2018 and co-moderated a series of town halls hosted by the Winston-Salem Urban League in 2016 that focused on the relationship between the black community and the police, with participation by Chief Catrina Thompson. A native of Richmond, Dennis has contributed a guest editorial for USA Today on Virginia Democrats and blackface, and commented on 2020 presidential candidates’ positions on criminal justice reform for NPR’s “Here & Now” in August 2019.
Watlington said Dennis’ training for Guilford County Schools principals on gender identities and gender discrimination in K-12 schools was “well received.” A survey of principals showed that 94 percent rated it as “relevant” and 88 percent rated it as “timely,” he said.
A copy of the PowerPoint for Dennis presentation provided to TCB by the district includes a slide addressing discomfort surrounding gender identity.
“False claims of ‘women are the way they are… men are the way they are… stop trying to change that and make things complicated,” it reads.
“School systems and schools are among the institutions that teach and reinforce (and force) gender normality and gender ideologies,” the slide continues.
It concludes: “How can schools change this tendency without offending gender-traditionalist families, communities and religions?”
Another slide calls principals to consider how they would “form a gender anti-discrimination committee” and “what realistic changes must be implemented.”
Nora Carr, the chief of staff for Guilford County Schools, said Dennis has provided trainings to the district since 2018, including about seven last year. Dennis was paid through purchase orders after invoicing the district, as opposed to a long-term contract. Carr said Dennis did not request payment for her final presentation after being informed that the district would no longer use her services.
Dennis said in an email to TCB that she is reluctant to comment about the controversy because “news stories often focus on adults’ uninformed outrage.”
“Instead, the focus should be on understanding figurative language used to motivate and encourage justice in knowledge and justice in learning,” she continued. “Justice in knowledge and justice in learning require various demographics and various cultures represented in creation and expression.
“Hopefully,” she added, “adults will end the uninformed outrage and work for such justice.”
Dennis’ recent training was on gender equity, and not racial equity. And notwithstanding Dennis’ tweet criticizing white framing of history, math and science, she has played no role in selecting the textbooks that Guilford County teachers use.
In an interview with TCB, Watlington conceded some merit in Dennis’ criticism.
“Without question,” he said, “black and brown children are not reflected as well as they need to be in the curriculum.”
Reached by phone on Friday evening, Hardister initially said he found Dennis’ tweet to be “racially combative” and “almost discriminatory.”
But when asked about how curriculum has historically centered white men as protagonists while rendering people of color and women invisible, Hardister struck a more conciliatory stance.
“That’s a valid concern,” he said. “Her comments come across as fairly radical. As far as history, people can distort history and leave things out. I graduated from Grimsley High School. We learned about the history of the sit-ins. I was always proud of it. I think I have a pretty good understanding of racial disparities. I get it that I can’t put myself in other people’s shoes.”
And asked if he thought it was possible that there might be an element of hyperbole in Dennis’ call for burning books, Hardister said, “Being provocative is a way to make change. If you are training principals, you should go an inclusive route. Politicians can sometimes be provocative on social media; that’s an advocacy route. She might want to have more decorum.”
Hardister said when he contacted Contreras, it was not his intention that Dennis lose her job. He said he suggested to Contreras that Dennis issue an apology.
Many of the commenters on Ridgill’s Facebook page expressed disbelief that curriculum could be built around whiteness and a sense of affront that someone would bring up the matter of race.
“Ok what the heck is white mathematics & science (I didn’t know they could be racially divided),” one woman commented. “Also, history is history as the definition of the word???”
Another wrote, “OK now this is really making me mad. I’m trying to teach my kids everybody bleeds red, but this idiot is the one is more racial on white people than I’ve ever seen anybody, and she’s working for our schools. She needs to be fired. I scream discrimination on white people. I am sick and tired of this crap. All the parents need to stand up; let’s pull together.”
Recent reporting by the New York Times shows that indeed there can be significant differences between how textbooks in different states present history, and that decisions about what to include more often revolve around politics than scholarship.
In one example, language describing the phenomenon of suburbanization after World War II was substantially alike in textbooks in California and Texas, but diverged in how it addressed the impact of race.
The California textbook included the sentence, “Movement of some white Americans from cities to suburbs was driven by a desire to get away from more culturally diverse neighborhoods.” The Texas textbook omitted the sentence.
The Texas textbook also left out the explanation that many of the white suburbs “were funded through bank loans form the FHA on the condition that no homes be sold to African Americans and that every deed have a clause prohibiting resale to African Americans.”
Hardister told TCB: “I don’t see how race conflates with science and math.”
But when asked to consider the cross-cultural development of knowledge, Hardister acknowledged, “I always thought about the Founding Fathers as being inventors, but I hadn’t thought about the engineering feat behind the [Egyptian] pyramids.”
In a handful of other updates on his Facebook page, Ridgill shared other social-media posts by Dennis, and in one he shared a slide from the trainer’s PowerPoint that was anonymously forwarded to him by one of the principals. The slide is headlined: “Robert K. Merton Typology of Prejudice and Discrimination: How this pertains to gender identities.”
“Again, this training has also been provided for GCS staff. Apparently Merton only acknowledges two kinds of people; liberals and bigots,” Ridgill complained, referring to the man widely regarded as the founder of modern sociology.
Reached for comment by TCB, Ridgill wrote, “I believe Dr. Dennis’ direct tweets and postings speak for themselves. I have nothing to add.”
In another Facebook post inviting scrutiny of Dennis’ social media output, on Jan. 13, Ridgill spelled out an agenda shared by many of his commenters in a hashtag: “#Contrerasmustgo.”
The tweet storm by Dennis that is referenced by Ridgill begins: “No matter how much whites eat feces and pretend it is chocolate pudding, fact remains, whites have fantasized about and enacted the controlling, raping, and murdering of black and brown women for centuries.”
Despite the well-established historical fact that white slave masters raped black female slaves and that the sexual abuse of black women at the hands of white men has been a lasting legacy of slavery, Ridgill’s followers reacted with disbelief. “Read some more claims to have PhD — well I beg to differ after reading her hatred towards white men,” one man commented. “I will agree the media is not all that, but raping and killing and stalking black women, I sure didn’t see it!! Just plum hate!! How can GCS Superintendent even spread anything this lady writes!! For me, there’s a change in the making.”