Diversity consultant divides Darien parents, school board members: ‘Destructive’ or ‘inclusive’?

Darien Schools students head to class on Sept. 3.

Darien Schools students head to class on Sept. 3.

Bryan Haeffele /Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — Parents and some Board of Education members have again clashed over ongoing work on diversity, equity and inclusion issues in the district, with many continuing to oppose the hiring of an education consultant who has been meeting with students for months.

The district has contracted California-based consultant Ken Shelton to carry out informal dialogues and guided discussions with students and faculty members throughout the school year. But during the public hearing at the Board of Education meeting this week, some parents said they disagreed with opinions Shelton has posted on personal blog sites and social media.

Over the summer, Shelton posted a four-part series of essays titled “Grading is Capitalist, Racist and Exploitative” on the social medium site Medium.com.

School officials have said Shelton will not be changing Darien’s grading systems.

“I feel that Ken’s presence in our educational system and his DEI initiatives are proof in themselves that the end goals are Marxist in nature and destructive by design,” parent Conor Godfrey claimed during public comments Tuesday. “It’s Marxism masquerading as tolerance, and I for one am not in support of it.”

The school board has discussed Shelton’s work with the district at several previous meetings. They interviewed Shelton during a board meeting in November, grilling him on opinions he holds on school policy.

At Tuesday’s meeting, board member David Brown still posed objections to Shelton. A large number of parents are alarmed that the district hired an outside consultant to conduct diversity work, Brown said.

Brown cited a previous controversy with a different hired consultant who worked on the board’s strategic plan, which he said blindsided parents.

Superintendent Alan Addley immediately voiced his disagreement, urging school board members to listen to the students who have previously testified about a school culture that several said silences marginalized students.

“I would want this board, quite honestly, to step up and support this initiative,” Addley said. “David, just respectfully, this couldn’t be any more inclusive.”

Other board members said they could not make a decision about Shelton based solely on writings that some find controversial.

“We go down a real slippery slope, that we start looking at people’s views and decide as a board especially or as a community to hire them or to pass,” board member John Sini said.

The district has already brought Shelton in for ongoing work at the schools, Assistant Superintendent Christopher Tranberg said.

Since October, Shelton has met with staff and with two groups of students at the middle and high school, Tranberg said. This comes after the district reported several swastikas found on school property, along with other incidents of discriminatory posts on social media.

The district has instituted other anti-discrimination programming as well. Middlesex Middle School recently brought in the Anti-Defamation League to address anti-Semitism. Students spoke with a Holocaust survivor during the program, Tranberg said.

Middlesex students also spoke with a high school student about their experiences with bullying and anti-Semitism, Tranberg said. Students have formed a new Gender Sexuality Alliance club with staff support.

But some parents said the pace of the work does not match the urgency needed to combat the several instances of hate graffiti and speech at the schools.

“These incidents happened in September and October, these students came up to you in October and asked (the school board) to act,” parent Julie Punishill said, calling the delay disappointing. “And in all honesty, aside from in the middle school, not much has been done. ... I feel like there are some very loud members and parents in the community who are trying to push the brakes on DEI. And I feel like you are allowing that to happen.”

The district has budgeted $23,000 for Shelton’s work up to this point, officials said Tuesday. The school board will need to either approve or deny a budget transfer request for $40,000 next month to pay Shelton if they choose to retain him for additional services beginning in the New Year.