A Prince William County sensitivity presentation to the school board and Board of Supervisors (BOS) members exploded into a shouting match earlier this month, leading to three Republican supervisors leaving the meeting. The “Raising Awareness of Unconscious Bias to Foster Inclusivity and Equity” presentation was part of a joint work session between the two boards.
When the presentation was introduced to the board, Supervisor Pete Candland (R) said, “I was surprised to see this on the agenda.” Candland asked if the presentation was for informational purposes about the school’s training or if it was meant as training for the boards.
School Board Vice Chairwoman Loree Williams (D) said that she had requested adding the presentation to the meeting. “We’re all elected leaders in a majority-minority county, so I thought it would be very wise of us to learn about implicit bias.” She added, “This evening’s presentation is not to say specifically what we do in the school division, […] but really to help us better understand how we should be looking at things, how our own biases affect our own judgements.”
Candland said, “I don’t think this is an appropriate venue, and frankly Vice Chair Williams, I don’t think it’s your place to tell the [BOS] what sort of training we need. Have you seen evidence that you think this implicit bias is a problem on the [BOS]? I didn’t agree to this kind of training.”
“To have the school board come and say to the [BOS], “We’re going to train you on implicit bias, your own implicit bias,” I think it’s highly offensive and inappropriate,” he said. Candland said that in the midst of a pandemic, problems with virtual learning, and funding discussions, the training was badly timed.
“Thank you Mr. Candland, your objection is noted, but implicit bias is something that every human being walking the earth has, and that was pretty much the point of this,” Williams said. “It’s not specific to you personally or to your board.” She added, “It’s fine if you object, that’s no problem, we’re all allowed to have our own opinions and perspectives, and I respectfully disagree with you and I thank you so much for sharing.”
Prince William County School Board Member Lillie Jessie (D) said the presentation was new to the school board as well, so it wasn’t just directed at the BOS. She said that having looked at the slides, she learned a lot. Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R) responded by referring to a 2017 letter signed by Williams and Jessie asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate a BOS deal which they, along with then-School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers (D), suggested could be “racially unfair.”
“So frankly, Ms. Williams, I have a hard time taking you seriously that you truly want to work together with people that don’t look like you or think politically like you when you file a DOJ complaint about me because of a vote that I took,” Lawson said. “Matter of fact, I’m going to pack up and leave because I’m offended that you find that I need to be trained and that this is also a priority to you.”
Multiple members of both boards began talking over each other. Eventually, Lawson said, “I don’t need the school board to tell our board how we need to be trained any more than I have plans to train you guys on table manners.”
BOS Chair Ann Wheeler (D) said, “If you don’t want to participate, you’re welcome to leave. We need to move on.”
Candland, Lawson, and Supervisor Yesli Vega (R) left the meeting. While the presentation continued, the three Supervisors filmed and posted a video to Candland’s Facebook.
In the video, Candland said, “My colleagues and I just walked out of the joint school board-[BOS] meeting.” He criticized Wheeler for taking the focus away from school funding, educational quality, and the pandemic. He said, “They decided to take this time to talk about implicit bias, critical race theory, talking about how the [BOS] needs to accept this training.”
Vega added, “I refuse to legitimize this notion that we’re all somehow racist. We live in a great county, this is a very troublesome time for everyone and I whole-heartedly agree that this is not the time nor the place to be having this discussion.”
In a statement, Lawson told The Virginia Star, “I am happy to engage in dialogue with any resident in the county. However, when we worked collaboratively to secure an extra $20 million to reduce trailers across the county, it was Vice Chair Williams who sent a letter to the DOJ accusing us of being racist. She has made it clear she is not interested in collaborative dialogue, but views race as a tool to attack anyone she disagrees with.”
In Candland’s video, Lawson said, “I just refuse to have somebody like Loree Williams train me one unconscious bias, when she’s the on that is having a problem seeing things fairly.”
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