Bozeman High School lets out

Students head to their buses at the end of the day at Bozeman High in this March 2020 Chronicle file photo.

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Bozeman School District’s curriculum won’t see any changes in response to the Montana attorney general’s recent opinion on critical race theory, district administers said.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen released an opinion with the authority of law in Montana last week ruling that aspects of antiracist or critical race theory, a movement in education centered on the idea that racism is systemic, could violate federal and state law.

In his opinion, Knudsen said it is not a ban on First Amendment-protected speech. Although he called the 1619 Project a “fraudulent curriculum” in a statement, his opinion found teaching it in Montana did not violate civil rights law. The 1619 Project is a series of New York Times Magazine essays that centers slavery in the founding of the United States.

District administrators said Bozeman schools polices are not in conflict with the Knudsen’s opinion.

“What we’re doing on a daily basis in the classrooms is unaffected by that opinion because any of these topics we’re talking about are protected under the First Amendment,” said interim Co-Superintendent Casey Bertram in an interview Wednesday.

The district’s academic freedom policy, which is protected under the First Amendment, gives the board authority to adopt curriculum and affords “teachers the ability to talk about controversial topics in a fair and balanced way,” Bertram said.

Bozeman teachers are taught to bring a variety of viewpoints into the classroom to allow students to make sense of it, whether it’s in a history class or an English literature class, Bertram said.

“We don’t formally adopt theories, but race theory or critical race theory or iterations of that are rooted in Montana Indian Education for All, which is in the Constitution,” Bertram said.

“We’re not shying away from conversations around our history. We’re not shying away from conversations around how policies have impacted groups of people over time.”

Interim Co-Superintendent Marilyn King said the First Amendment protections are balanced by the district’s policy that directs teachers on how they should handle controversial topics.

On an annual basis, principals talk with teachers about academic freedom policies and how to ensure a balanced approach to controversial issues in class discussions, King said. The end goal is to help students become critical thinkers, she said.

Bertram said the district received guidance from the Montana School Boards Association after reaching out following Knudsen’s opinion.

Without providing examples specific to Montana, Knudsen wrote in his opinion, “In many instances, the use of ‘Critical Race Theory’ and ‘antiracism’ programming discriminates on the basis of race, color, or national origin.”

In a statement Wednesday, MTSBA said it has seen no evidence that any school board in the state has taught racist doctrine.

“The Attorney General’s opinion doesn’t do much of anything. The Opinion acknowledges that it does not restrict expressive activities protected under the First Amendment, including academic freedom or political student speech and that teaching from the 1619 Project does not violate civil rights laws when taught in Montana schools,” the statement said.

Knudsen’s opinion was in response to a request from Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen to rule on “the legality of teaching so-called ‘antiracism.’”

Although the system is set up to have partisan, elected officials in those positions, Bertram said, the school districts are nonpartisan.

“We take that work seriously and want to ensure that our staff members are not taking a stand on their personal opinions or beliefs around politics in the classroom,” he said.

Bertram and King said there have been reminders to teachers that topics around race and equity are politicized and charged with a lot of emotion.

“It’s important that they follow the policy and bring in multiple viewpoints and perspectives as they approach any of those topics,” Bertram said.

Prior to Artnzen’s or Knudsen’s statements against critical race theory, the district received questions from parents concerned about what was being taught in Bozeman schools.

There are concerns the district is making decision behind closed doors but all curriculum decisions are made in public meetings, King said. When parents reach out, they don’t have examples of problems with Bozeman’s curriculum but reference stories of it happening in other parts of the country, she said.

Both Bertram and King said parents, students and members of the public with questions should reach out principals, teachers or administrators.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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