Cecelia Lewis, the Maryland school principal who was hired to focus on diversity at Cherokee County School District, stepped away from the position after receiving a strong message from residents that she is “not welcome” at a recent school board meeting, she said in a statement to the Tribune.
“The message I received from the Cherokee County community, who has never met me or tried to get to know me, not the position, is we do not want you here, you don’t belong here, and you’re not welcome here, highlighting the fact that the work of celebrating and appreciating diversity, instead of denying or judging it is much needed in this district,” she said.
Lewis said it became clear that the job was “not God’s will” after “stereotypes and lies” were spread about her before she even introduced herself to the community.
Administrator was hired in part to help develop DEI plan
Lewis was hired by the district in March to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion and social and emotional learning, and was scheduled to start in July. The district announced then that she was to help create and implement a DEI plan in schools. The creation of a DEI-focused position came from input from parents, employees and students of color in ad hoc committees on the subject the superintendent formed earlier in the school year, according to the district. Social and emotional learning in CCSD is a mental health initiative rolled out two years ago in response to rising youth suicide rates across the country and in Cherokee County.
Rumors circulated this spring on social media connecting the hire to critical race theory, an academic framework that assumes race is a social construct and that racism is embedded in legal systems and policies. In response, the school board drafted — and ultimately passed May 20 — a resolution banning the theory, and The 1619 Project, a New York Times collection that focuses United States history on slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. Superintendent Brian Hightower went a step further, announcing there would no longer be plans to create a DEI plan in the district.
The school board meeting saw hundreds of parents and residents, mostly protesting critical race theory. Those denouncing the theory argued it paints white people as oppressors and shames white students. Many of the CRT opponents linked the theory to DEI and SEL, and the ban didn’t go far enough for some who wanted to see SEL programming and Lewis’ position eliminated. In heated moments, audience members shouted and interrupted speakers. The meeting also saw heightened security measures including increased police presence, a metal detector and a ban on bags in the building.
“I pray that this does not happen to any student or family the school system is charged with serving, protecting and supporting under their care,” she said. “After much prayer, deliberation and counsel from family and friends, my decision to terminate my contract with CCSD came down to me no longer feeling safe and the work I was hired to do not supported or prioritized by the CCSD Board of Education.”
Lewis, who is Black, had never heard of critical race theory until a few weeks ago when she was accused of bringing it to Cherokee County, she said.
“Once those concerned about it were told no, critical race theory is NOT what CCSD’s DEI efforts are about, the discussion should have been over,” she said.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
Lewis stressed that diversity, equity and inclusion are not bad words — pointing to educators being mindful of Muslim students observing fasting during Ramadan, ensuring wheelchair access on field trips and using language to avoid defining children by their disabilities as examples of DEI.
“Allowing the opponents of DEI and accusers of critical race theory indoctrination to turn these words into negatives is absurd. It’s as absurd as someone seeing me use the items divider in a supermarket’s checkout line to separate my items from yours as a courtesy and someone saying that because I did that I must believe in segregation,” she said.
The issue has taken time away from work supporting teaching and learning, Lewis said.
“I wholeheartedly fell in love with Cherokee County when I came to visit and accepted the position, but somehow, I got caught in the crossfire of lies, misinformation, and accusations which have zero basis,” she said.
In addition to the heated complaints and contentious interactions seen at the school board meeting, Lewis received harassment, she said.
“I have been contacted on my job and work email accusing me (of) being a Marxist and coming to take jobs away and opportunities away from some students to give their seats to ‘others’,” she said. “I have no interest in coming to a hostile work environment.”
“A loss for our school district’
The superintendent announced to district employees last Wednesday that Lewis would no longer be joining CCSD.
“It was very hard to hear her share her decision with me, but I respect her decision and wish her all the best,” Hightower said in an email to staff. “Her decision is a loss for our School District and for our students, as I know she would have worked hard to help us better serve them.”
Barbara Jacoby, spokeswoman for the school district, said the behavior shown at last month’s school board meeting was unacceptable.
“We strongly agree that the behavior of the audience was unacceptable. We already have met to begin planning additional changes to ensure that audience members are limited at future meetings to remaining in their seats and being civil,” she said.
Lewis said she would pray for Cherokee County.
“My unfortunate and brief experience revealed that DEI is not the only or even priority issue that needs to be addressed. There are humanity issues that need to be addressed first in this district: being kind to others, not judging people before you get a chance to know them, and not making up lies to create a platform for attention,” she said. “I wish nothing but the best in all present and future efforts to help heal the brokenness within this community.”