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The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are (seated at table, from left) Gisele Davis, Chandra Williams Davis, Ruthie Walls, Sadie Bell Reynolds and Jennifer Reynolds. Photo by Brian Chilson for the Arkansas Times.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are (seated at table, from left) Gisele Davis, Chandra Williams Davis, Ruthie Walls, Sadie Bell Reynolds and Jennifer Reynolds. Photo by Brian Chilson for the Arkansas Times.

Central High plaintiffs sue Sanders, Oliva over targeting of AP African American Studies

BY Jeannie Roberts ON March 25, 20245:57 pm in the Arkansas Times

A federal lawsuit challenging a state law against “indoctrination” in the classroom was filed Monday against Gov. Sarah Sanders and Arkansas Department of Education Secretary Jacob Oliva.

Civil rights attorneys Mike Laux and Austin Porter told a crowd gathered at a church across the street from Little Rock’s Central High School that they are asking the court to declare Section 16 of the Arkansas LEARNS Act unconstitutional and to immediately stop the state from enforcing it. Section 16, the portion of the law that prohibits indoctrination, was cited by the state education department last summer in its decision to no longer count AP African American Studies toward state graduation requirements.

“I think it’s a sad day in America when children cannot learn true history,” Porter said. “History has some ugly components to it. It’s a sad reality that in Arkansas, because of this law, our children have to resort to TikTok in order to learn true history. And that history should be taught in the classroom.”

The five plaintiffs — Central High School history teacher Ruthie Walls, parent Jennifer Reynolds, student Sadie Bell Reynolds, parent Chandra Williams Davis and student Gisele Davis — are also seeking damages.

LEARNS bars any lessons that “might indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory, otherwise known as ‘CRT,’ that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law or encourage students to discriminate against someone based on the individual’s color, creed, race, ethnicity, sex, age, marital status, family status, disability, religion, national origin or any other characteristic protected by federal law.”

“The LEARNS Act’s Section 16 is nothing more than a brazen, political attempt to silence speech and expression with which Gov. Sanders and Secretary Oliva simply disagree,” Laux said. “The LEARNS Act violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It is unworkably vague and oppressive, and it discriminates on the basis of race.”

Laux, whose law practice is based in Chicago, has filed several federal lawsuits in Little Rock over alleged police misconduct and other civil rights issues.

The lawsuit stems from an 11th-hour decision made by the education department in August, a week before most schools began their year, that the AP African American Studies class would not count toward graduation credits or be weighted the same as other AP courses offered in the state. The state also would not cover the $90+ exam fee.

The course was added in 2022 to the state’s list of classes accepted for credit. Schools in Jonesboro and Little Rock offered the first-year pilot version of the class in the 2022-23 school year.

AP African American Studies is now in its second year of the pilot program and is offered in six schools across the state: Little Rock’s Central High School, North Little Rock High School, Jacksonville High and the Academies at Jonesboro, along with the charter schools North Little Rock Center for Excellence and eStem High School.

After it withdrew support for the course in August, the education department said in a statement that the department “supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination” and warned the class could “unintentionally put a teacher at risk of violating Arkansas law.” teachers who offer the course may be breaking the law. The statement suggested AP African American Studies is academically shoddy and based on ideology instead of fact.

All six Arkansas high schools offering the pilot in the 2023-24 school year continued to do so even after the state withdrew support for the course.

Multiple Central High students read a statement at the press conference from Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine, who likened the attempted elimination of the course to when Gov. Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard in 1957 to prevent the desegregation of Central High.

“In 2023 Gov. Sarah Huckabee of Arkansas aided and abetted by the Arkansas State Legislature, has acted in her own political interest by erecting barriers to learning in Arkansas public schools,” Roberts’ statement said. “Let us not rob yet another generation of the opportunity to solve the problems generated by the continued embrace of ideologies based on the false notions of race and hierarchies of racial superiority.”

Walls, who teaches AP African American Studies at Central, told the crowd that when she walked into the room last summer during a College Board training, people whispered, “She’s from Arkansas.” Questions ensued from her fellow teachers, Walls said.

“We must turn this around,” Walls said. “We must turn this humiliating spotlight away from us.”

Jennifer Reynolds, the mother of Sadie Bell Reynolds, told the group that the AP course was the one course that her daughter was most interested in. Approaching the end of the year, Jennifer Reynolds said she is very impressed with the critical thinking skills and the appreciation of multiple perspectives the course imbued.

“We have to be better for these kids,” she said.

Sadie Bell Reynolds told the crowd that the course is “just another way for me to learn another perspective.”

“I don’t think it’s right for us to cover up someone else’s perspective,” she said. “I’ve never felt shamed in Ms. Wall’s classroom about learning about another person’s perspective. It’s just about what happened in our history, in America’s history, in my history.”

The lawsuit also draws a connection between the desegregation of Central High and the state’s targeting of AP African American studies.

“Defendants’ brazen attack on full classroom participation for all students in 2024 is reminiscent of the State’s brazen attack on full classroom participation for all students in 1957,” the complaint says. “This presents a truly ironic situation because if plaintiffs were merely to discuss these unconstitutional attacks by Gov. Sanders in their [AP African American Studies] classroom, or liken the motivation of the attacks to the oppressive institutional racism faced by the Little Rock 9, plaintiffs would find themselves in violation of Section 16 and subject to criminal penalty imposed by the State.