Last night’s Sarasota County School Board meeting was packed. Roughly 60 to 70 people attended and dozens shared their concerns about masks in schools (which will be optional this school year), mental health services, services for students with disabilities and the achievement gap. Perhaps most contentious, however, was the discussion about critical race theory (CRT), an issue that wasn't even on the agenda.

A local organization, named Sarasota County School District – Transparency Project, which has no official affiliation with the school district, posted a statement on its Facebook page that called for “removing teachers from the classroom” who signed a pledge stating, “We, the undersigned educators, refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events—regardless of the law." It listed three teachers, one in Manatee County, another who is retired and taught adults, and a third who teaches in Sarasota County.

The pledge is part of a campaign led by the Zinn Education Project, a nonprofit that has provided teaching support and free lesson materials to educators across the nation since 2008, highlighting marginalized groups throughout U.S. history.

The Transparency Project Facebook page targets opponents by name and rallies parents who oppose issues like mask-wearing in schools—a subject that led the Sarasota school board to report the group to the FBI last year when it posted an image of a woman brandishing a gun and calling for protestors to show up at a school board meeting. Despite the group using the name "Transparency Project," the creators and administrators of the page remain anonymous.

The Zinn teacher pledge was created in response to legislation popping up in various states that would restrict teaching about racism and inequality. More than 5,100 educators around the country have signed the pledge.

In a July 9 post on its Facebook page, the Transparency Project charged that teachers who signed the pledge “brainwash your children” and claim the pledge is proof that CRT is being taught in Sarasota schools. (Critical race theory is an academic concept that is most often taught in higher education. The core idea is that racism goes beyond individual bias. Racism, according to this theory, is a belief or concept created and accepted by society and embedded in its legal systems.)

“We have 2,700 teachers. They have never advocated for CRT. We teach the Florida Standards,” Sarasota County Schools superintendent Brennan Asplen said at Tuesday's meeting.

Booker Middle School student Kennedy Cole said the idea that CRT is being taught in local schools is "ridiculous."

“Teachers present the facts and they give us time to form our own opinion," he said.

Notwithstanding Asplen's statement that CRT is not part of the school district’s curriculum, some speakers said it might creep into other areas of subject matter, like social-emotional learning (SEL), found to be an indicator of educational success. SEL encompasses interpersonal skills like self-control, cooperation and self-awareness, and often touches on identity, environment and family. It's an approach that has the intention of helping students grow into confident, capable adults.

“This is the first time I heard SEL is part of CRT teaching, but SEL is part of what helps us get to know the student, their background and their family and help them have great relationships with students," Asplen said. "If you don’t do that, how are we supposed to teach them to read?”

Another speaker, Carol Holland, was not convinced. “Words like 'diversity,' 'equity' and 'culture' are being substituted for CRT," she said.

Sarah Hu, a Sarasota County teacher of 12 years and mother of three, says one concern is that teachers will feel threatened.

“It’s important for the school board to make a public commitment of support to teachers who want to support teaching the truth," she says. "Without that, there could be a chilling effect, and teachers may choose to censor themselves in an effort to avoid the possibility of negative attention. It’s imperative that the lived experiences of Black, brown and Indigenous people continue to be taught in addition to the dominant culture perspective that is traditionally taught in our textbooks." Hu was also among Tuesday's public speakers.

After the meeting, Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler said, “We need to keep an eye on it. There's such a value with SEL and supporting kids and their environment. But I believe outside groups have infiltrated SEL and are embedding this rebranded, diluted CRT in it. It always goes into this racial lens with the end goal to divide us."

Ziegler said she “wants teachers to continue to be inspired and passionate about what they do” and that she trusts they aren’t seeking to be “social justice warriors."

To address parents’ concerns about the content of curriculum, Asplen pledged to publish lessons online to establish transparency and trust with parents, but added that it would take some time.

As for the local teacher singled out by the Transparency Project for signing the pledge put forth by the Zinn Education Project, both Ziegler and Aspen said the board “was looking into it.”

The next Sarasota County School Board meeting is scheduled on July 27, at 4 p.m. at 1980 Landings Blvd., Sarasota. Public speakers are welcome.