When Black History Month began last week, some parents in the predominantly White community of North Ogden, Utah, didn’t see why their children had to participate. So they went to the head of Maria Montessori Academy, a public charter school with only three Black students, and demanded to “opt out.”
The school “reluctantly” allowed them to do so.
After a local newspaper reported on the decision, community leaders responded with outrage.
“I strongly believe we cannot learn American history without learning Black history,” Rep. Blake Moore, a Republican whose district includes North Ogden, said in a statement over the weekend. “Imagine if we had to teach Utah history without highlighting the persecution of early members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who led the migration west.”
Facing blowback, the school reversed course on Saturday and said that all students would be taking part in Black History Month.
The incident is the latest controversy to demonstrate how attempting to teach students about America’s past has grown increasingly fraught, with some parents and educators advocating for a more unvarnished look at the country’s legacy of racism and slavery, and others pushing a “patriotic” curriculum that glosses over many of those details. Similar debates played out nationwide in recent months as The New York Times’ “The 1619 Project,” which highlighted how slavery shaped the United States, was repeatedly criticized by former president Donald Trump and his administration.
As the Standard-Examiner first reported, the school’s policy began attracting attention on Friday after Maria Montessori Academy Director Micah Hirokawa wrote in a since-deleted Facebook post that he had “reluctantly” informed the school community that “families are allowed to exercise their civil rights to not participate in Black History Month at the school.”
As someone whose own great-grandparents were sent to Japanese internment camps during World War II, Hirokawa emphasized that he was deeply disappointed that parents had even made such a request. “I personally see a lot of value in teaching our children about the mistreatment, challenges, and obstacles that people of color in our Nation have had to endure and what we can do today to ensure that such wrongs don’t continue,” he wrote, according to the paper.
But he also maintained that parents were free to think otherwise, writing that “the right to not participate has equal power in the right to participate.”
It’s not clear what reason parents gave for objecting to Black History Month. Hirokawa stated only that “a few families” had said that they didn’t want their children participating in activities, and declined to give a precise number to the Standard-Examiner. As the paper noted, data from the Utah State Board of Education shows that only three of the school’s 322 students from preschool to ninth grade are Black, while close to 70 percent of them are White.
According to KSL, all parents were sent a link to a Google document that they could fill out if they wanted their children to be excused from events and lessons related to Black History Month. Many community members were outraged, and questioned why students should be allowed to miss out on learning about a crucial component of American history.
“If they want to opt out, then perhaps the best thing they should do is home-school their children,” Salt Lake City NAACP President Jeanetta Williams told the station. She suggested that the parents were “uncomfortable about talking about race and race relationships.”
It also got the attention of Donovan Mitchell, the star guard with the Utah Jazz. Mitchell, who is Black and the state’s biggest professional sports star, tweeted that “the fact that kids are being told by their own parents to not learn about black history and black excellence is sickening and sad.”
About 45 minutes north of Salt Lake City, North Ogden is roughly 94 percent White, according to recent census data. Jaime Tracey, the parent of a child at Maria Montessori Academy, told KSTU that she had been pushing “forever” to get the school to incorporate Black History Month into its curriculum. After Hirokawa was hired as director last April, she finally had a receptive audience.
“I just knew that he was as surprised as I was that probably a lot of families sent in the paperwork to not participate,” she told the station.
Legally speaking, it’s not entirely clear if parents have the right to opt their children out of Black History Month. Utah law allows public school students to be granted a waiver from instruction that would infringe on their religious beliefs, or “right of conscience.” But students cannot be exempted from the core social sciences curriculum that “include a focus on U.S. history, inequality and race relations,” a spokesperson from the State Board of Education told KSTU.
Facing public criticism, Maria Montessori Academy announced Saturday that Black History Month would be mandatory after all. A statement posted to the school’s website over the weekend said that parents who “initially had questions and concerns” had “willingly come to the table to resolve any differences,” and there would be no families opting out.
But many found it disturbing that the school had been willing to entertain parents’ objections in the first place.
“While this decision was recently reversed, we find its very consideration troubling,” the Ogden NAACP said in a statement that was shared by a Standard-Examiner reporter on Twitter. “Given the current tumultuous state of race relations in our country, it is now more vital than ever that children are given ample opportunities to learn the authentic history of our nation, not sanitized, ‘feel good’ versions.”