National nonprofit objects to some affinity groups in Ashland schools
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
A conservative watchdog has leveled claims of racial discrimination against the Ashland School District (ASD), alleging student clubs focused on minority cultures illegally exclude students of other races and backgrounds.
Parents Defending Education (PDE), based in Washington, D.C., said they filed a complaint Jan. 3 with the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) Office of Civil Rights over ASD’s student affinity groups, which promote activities and social engagement for students who share common backgrounds including race, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation.
ASD Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove said ASD has not received notification from ODE about the complaint and said the district will respond to the allegations through the complaint resolution process.
“We do not comment on open complaints outside of the complaint process,” he said Thursday, Jan. 5. “We have nothing further to add at this time.”
Affinity groups named in the complaint include the Black Student Union, Latinx Student Union, Native Student Union and Asian Student Union. Ashland High School’s website also identified the Queer Straight Alliance, Women’s Affinity Group and Spanish Honor Society among other affinity groups, while similar programs are found at Ashland Middle School and local elementary schools.
PDE, founded in 2021 by President Nicole Neily, a former media specialist and executive for conservative and libertarian think tanks in D.C., took issue with language describing the purpose and activities of these affinity groups, which emphasized outreach to students with specific cultural identities such as Black, Asian, Native American, or Latinx. PDE’s complaint said these descriptions exclude students of other racial identities in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act.
“As the Department of Education is no doubt aware, segregation on the basis of race raises concerns that the Ashland School District has received federal funds in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which declares that ‘no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,’” it says in the complaint.
PDE has asked DOE to investigate its claims of racism and “act swiftly to remedy unlawful policies and practices, and order appropriate relief.” Similar complaints were also filed with DOE Jan. 3 against Portland Public Schools in Maine and Shelburne Community School in Vermont.
Previous claims of discrimination within affinity groups resulted in a federal lawsuit against Wellesley Public Schools of Wellesley, Massachusetts, filed by PDE on Oct. 19, 2021. The suit was dismissed Feb. 7, 2022, after the defendant changed its policies to allow participation in affinity groups by all members of the student body, and without membership based on race or ethnicity.
A separate lawsuit against the Linn-Mar Community School District, in Linn County, Iowa, remains pending in federal court. PDE sued Aug. 8, 2022, seeking to overturn protections for transgender and nonbinary students in school policy, including an injunction staying implementation of such policies until the suit is resolved.
The request for an injunction was denied Sept. 12, 2022, on the grounds that PDE had not presented compelling evidence that their claims were likely to prevail. This decision has since been appealed and a future hearing date has yet to be published.
According to PDE’s website, defendinged.org, legal action is initiated after parents and community members reach out through a tip line that encourages them to report “ideologically driven curriculum with a concerning and often divisive emphasis on students’ group identities: race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender.” The group then investigates alleged incidents and determines if legal action on behalf of the tipsters is warranted.
Out of six incidents published by PDE for Oregon, none were against ASD, though Neily told The Leadership Institute her group vets and fact-checks allegations before publishing reported incidents, and they keep tipster information confidential to prevent possible retaliation.
Jan. 5 update: Response added from school district superintendent, along with addition information about other complaints filed by Parents Defending Education and minor edits for clarification.