Tensions Rise in Virginia Schools Over Racial Issues

Eric Felten | March 7, 2023

(RealClearPolitics) — In January 2022, on his first day in office, Virginia’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, showed race antagonists the schoolhouse door. During the campaign, Youngkin had promised voters he would end what he called the “Inherently Divisive Policies, Programs, Training, and Curricula” centered on race. Conservative parents had been protesting ideologically charged “antiracism” training in schools across the state. A year later, the conflicts born of “Critical Race Theory” are still playing out in Virginia schools.

But it isn’t just students and their parents who have complained about race-based curricula in the Commonwealth. Teachers, school staff, and administrators have been among those made anxious and uncomfortable by programs they perceive as racially divisive.

Emily Mais was an assistant principal at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School in Charlottesville. She is suing the Albemarle County school board in federal court for tolerating, if not creating, racial hostility in the workplace. The litigation is complicated by accusations that Mais herself contributed to the racially fraught atmosphere.

The Albemarle County school board voted in 2019 to establish an antiracism curriculum. In November 2020, local schools began to implement the policy by requiring all staff to undergo antiracist training. When the sessions began, a number of teachers at Agnor-Hurt Elementary complained to Mais that the program, rather than bringing about racial understanding, was creating racial antagonisms. They told her the course encouraged “hurtful and pejorative comments” and they felt they were being demonized for being white. Mais told the court that she passed those concerns on to Ashby Kindler, the administrator in charge of the training. Mais says Kindler refused to address the teachers’ complaints. Kindler referred interview requests from RCP to school board spokesman Phil Giaramita, who said, “We simply are not at liberty to talk.”

Many parents were also unhappy. Several spoke out against the antiracism curriculum at a May 27, 2021, school board meeting. One parent complained that the program was “incubating a culture rooted in grievance, discord and victimhood.” Several other parents spoke up in favor of the program.

Mais almost made it through the obligatory training without incident. But on the last day of the program, June 11, 2001, she participated, as instructed, in a conversation about how to address “racial disparities in school board staff,” including those involving people of color.

Except that Mais did not say “people of color.” She said “colored people.”

Mais recognized she had made a potentially problematic error – what her attorneys call a “slip of the tongue.” She apologized immediately and profusely to everyone who might have heard her. She repeated her apology to others. But according to claims in court documents, the apology wasn’t good enough for a teacher’s aide named Sheila Avery. In front of the participants in the training seminar, Avery accused Mais of “speaking like old racists who told people of color to go to the back of the bus.”

In the days that followed, Mais says that she heard from other teachers that Avery, who is black, was denouncing her as a racist. Mais went to the school’s principal for help, claiming she was being mistreated. Mais said the abuse was causing her “severe mental and emotional distress” that was keeping her from doing her job. Mais says the principal did nothing about it.

Mais was, however, contacted by a more senior administrator, one of the school board’s assistant superintendents, Dr. Bernard Hairston. As he put it in a video for school employees, Hairston had been “entrusted” with developing the Albemarle County School District’s antiracism policy. In his video, Hairston declared, “The school board must be serious about confronting this institutional system built on advancing whiteness!”

Early in August 2021, Hairston called Mais to meet with him and Avery. In her 2022 court filing, Mais says that though she “continuously apologized throughout the meeting,” Avery refused to accept her apology. Instead, Hairston called on Mais to apologize to the entire school staff.

At the end of August, Mais gave notice that she would be resigning as of September 10, 2021. According to her filing with the District Court, the school board pressured her to deliver an apology “in front of all the 2021-2022 Agnor-Hurt teachers.” Mais claims the school’s guidance counselor, Emily Holmstrom, rejected a draft apology in which Mais planned to express how distressing the incident had been for her. According to Mais, Holmstrom told her she was acting “like a typical defensive white person.” (Holmstrom did not respond to an email from RealClearPolitics.)

In a school-wide meeting of Agnor-Hurt teachers on September 9, 2021, Mais made a public apology. Avery used the meeting to denounce Mais as a racist, telling the assembled school employees that “they could either be on her side or Mais’ side and that there was no in-between. (Avery did not respond to RCP’s request for an interview.) Mais later decided to sue, alleging she had been subjected to a hostile work environment.

At the Virginia Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights, Mais charged Albemarle schools with discrimination. She also took her complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Neither was to any avail.

With the help of the legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, Mais would eventually bring a raft of complaints against the school district. She accused the school board of violating her right to free speech under the Virginia constitution; claimed she had been wrongfully forced from her job; charged the schools with violating the Virginia Human Rights Act; and asserted that Albemarle County had run afoul of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act. That provision “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.”

At a hearing in December, the lawyer for the school district, Jeremy Capps, scoffed at the notion Mais faced a hostile work environment, notwithstanding Avery twice calling Mais a “two-faced, white racist bitch.” Mais, Capps said, just “didn’t like the fact that she was asked to apologize” in front of the school’s teachers and staff. But that, he said, “doesn’t make a hostile work environment.”

U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon disagreed, noting that even after she had apologized repeatedly to those who had heard her comment, the administration demanded Mais apologize again. Even after Mais had given notice she was resigning, school officials insisted that, on her last day, she go before a special assembly of teachers and staff to offer yet another apology: “It’s like putting someone in the pillory in a way,” the judge said. He asked the school board’s attorney: “I mean, when are you going to let up? At what point will it be enough?”

The judge also seemed to be troubled by the unusual nature of what Mais’ lawyer, Hal Frampton, calls her “shaming.” “Normally,” the judge asked, “is the punishment of someone for wrongdoing a public punishment?”

The school board’s lawyer didn’t answer the judge’s question directly. Instead, Capps said that what counted as “appropriate discipline” was at the “employer’s discretion.” RealClearPolitics asked Capps in writing whether the Albemarle school board could point to any other instances in which it meted out a public punishment. Capps did not reply.

Albemarle schools urged the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia to toss out all the complaints made by Mais. Last month, the Court dismissed a majority of her claims, primarily on questions of jurisdiction and states’ sovereign immunity.

But not those made under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: In a Memorandum Opinion, Judge Moon allowed Mais’ federal complaint to go forward, writing that the “Plaintiff has alleged a plausible racial hostile work environment claim under Title VII.”

“Plaintiff has alleged enough facts to allow a jury to determine if the alleged harassment was ‘severe or pervasive.’” Among the allegations made by Mais was that when she turned to her school’s principal for help, “no action was taken”; when she complained to an assistant superintendent and HR employees that she was the target of “racially charged mistreatment … the School Board took no action.”

The Mais litigation may go some distance in addressing what counts as justification for accusing someone of racism. Complicating those contentions in the Virginia case is the abrupt resignation last week of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow. She had led Youngkin’s effort to revise how schools in the state teach socially divisive issues, including those dealing with race and history. Will the governor’s charge against Critical Race Theory be blunted? The answer to that question will affect the way schools such as those in Albemarle County teach questions of race, as will the lawsuit brought by Emily Mais.

Eric Felten is a senior writer for RealClearPolitics, where this article was first published.