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Rockwood superintendent pauses equity work amid ongoing division on diversity

Dr. Curtis Cain, Wentzville School District superintendent, on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022 at his office in Wentzville, Mo. Cain will join the Rockwood School District in June after working in the district for the past nine years. He is also the 2022 Missouri Superintendent of the Year and is one of four finalists for the 2022 National Superintendent of the year.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Rockwood School District Superintendent Curtis Cain told principals in an email that the district would put equity efforts on hold. “I want to be very clear that this work will continue as it is vital to our mission to ensure all students reach their full potential,” Cain wrote.

Updated at 6 p.m. Sept. 2 with comments from Superintendent Curtis Cain

Rockwood School District Superintendent Curtis Cain has put the district’s diversity and equity work on hold this school year.

In an email to school principals last month, Cain praised Aisha Grace, the district’s director of education, equity and diversity, for developing training and providing support for students to ensure their needs are met this school year. However, Cain asked district principals to delay any equity staff training until he meets with Grace and her team.

Cain said Friday that he and the district’s senior leadership team will review the training components. He also said the efforts to improve diversity and equity will continue.

“There could be the need to recalibrate, not only just to recalibrate, but really just to review it so that I have an understanding in terms of the conversation of dialogue that's going on in the buildings over 150 square miles here in the Rockwood school district,” he said.

Cain said that he did not receive pressure from parents to pause equity efforts and that board members moved forward with a stipend for DEI staff at schools in the district.

“That work was approved, and actually moved forward, in our consent agenda last night,” Cain said. “So when I say the work doesn't stop, it's nice to say that but in actuality, you can see that we are putting dollars, resources behind the fact that we know we have work that needs to continue.”

The Rockwood School Board appointed Cain superintendent on July 1. He previously led the Wentzville School District for nine years. The board also appointed Grace on July 1. Brittany Hogan, the district's previous director of education, equity and diversity, resigned in 2021. Hogan was harassed by parents and received death threats because of her efforts to diversify the district’s curriculum.

Cain, who is the national superintendent of the year, told the district’s principals he wants to continue the equity work as it is vital to the district’s mission to ensure all students reach their full potential. But he did not specify when it would resume.

The Rockwood district has for years dealt with ongoing controversy over how to teach about race, history and equity.

Cain said Friday that the review of training materials does not mean that the district will bring equity work to a halt.

“I don't want people to look too deeply into this and wonder, ‘Does that mean we're doing nothing for eight months?’ That's absolutely not what that entails.”

The superintendent said his email “was verbiage that needed to be sent out" so that principals would understand.

"I want us to all be on the same page, as we're moving forward, meeting the needs of students, working with staff, but also creating the opportunities so people can have real dialogue in terms of staff in terms of conversations about a variety of topics," Cain said.

Board penalizes member

The email announcing the pause in equity efforts came just days before a newly elected school board member made now widely condemned comments.

At a Real Talk Radio event last month, board member Jessica Clark said teachers have been indoctrinated by universities and went on to use offensive language describing liberals and people with disabilities.

 A campaign yard sign for Jessica Clark is displayed in the Rockwood School District on March 28th. The sign says "vote conservative" under her name.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
When Rockwood School Board member Jessica Clark made signs for her campaign, they included the message to "vote conservative."

“When we talk about this transgender crap, you’re not going to do that to my kids,” Clark said. “I got people that come to the school board meetings with their gay flags and their masks. … They come in with the kids in the wheelchairs and everything. … Whatever, I was talking to you. You are a libtard and I mean that and I stand on that.”

Multiple parents spoke out against Clark’s statements at a school board meeting Thursday, saying she was talking about their families.

On Thursday, the board voted to strip Clark of her committee assignments and proposed changes to strengthen official ethics policies for all board members that would require them to be respectful and refrain “from making disparaging or inappropriate comments regarding students, staff, or the Rockwood community.”

Board member Jaime Bayes said Clark’s statements brought unwanted negative attention to the district and its families.

“Ms. Clark’s comments have not only adversely impacted her effectiveness as a board of education member, they have undermined the orderly governance of the district, staff morale and the reputation of the district among its parent and student community,” Bayes said.

Clark was elected in April after running an explicitly conservative campaign. In a forum before the election, Clark responded to a question about initiatives for LGBTQ students.

“Our kids have unique challenges. I don't think kids that are part of the LGBTQ community have any more challenges than any other children,” Clark said. “I think as long as they know that their teachers are there to support them, I don't think that we should be talking about student sexual orientation. I think that goes beyond what the school is about.”

Clark won her seat with about 24% of the vote in a five-way race. Izzy Imig also won a seat on the board with about 28%.

Chad Davis contributed to this report.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist 
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Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.
Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.