Kansas school district fights ‘indoctrination’ rumors, continues DEI training

Shawnee Mission school district says its goal is to make every student feel included

By: - July 27, 2023 10:07 am
Critics of diversity, equity and inclusion training protest May 10, 2023, outside the Shawnee Mission North school.

Critics of diversity, equity and inclusion training protest May 10, 2023, outside the Shawnee Mission North school. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Darrin Dressler video)

OVERLAND PARK — Sitting on the curb outside of the Shawnee Mission North High School in May, surrounded by American flags, Debbie Detmer said she was inspired by the example of a district teacher to fight against the evils of DEI training.

“Diversity — it’s all about division,” Detmer said. “They divide, they hate, they discriminate.”

Proponents of diversity, equity and inclusion training say the practice is just a way to make all students feel safe and welcomed in their learning environment. Since April, the Shawnee Mission district has been embroiled in an ongoing debate about DEI training with a small but vocal group of parents and community members calling the training “indoctrination” and a product of the “woke agenda.” 

The renewed discussion began after a district teacher wrote an op-ed condemning DEI that was published by an online conservative website, leading to a student protest and a Republican counter-protest meant to “fight the evil” of DEI practices. While debate has simmered down in the months since the school’s protest, the district is still dealing with opponents of the training method.

At the July 24 Shawnee Mission Board of Education meeting, a mother in the district railed against the DEI policies, calling the initiative “despicable and disgusting” in an interview with Kansas Reflector. Elaine, who would only give her first name because she said she was scared of doxing, said she disapproved of the training.

“Children are walking out for trans inclusive policies, which I don’t understand what rights a trans person doesn’t have,” she said. “Gays can get married so I’m not sure what rights you’re trying to get but I can tell you a child’s development does not require being taught to on inappropriate levels about sexual topics.”

It’s unclear what material she was referring to.

The school board announced its five-year plan of examining biases and teaching practices to ensure student success in 2019. The 2021-2022 school year was the last of a three-year initiative to train all district employees in DEI.

“We know there’s a direct connection between students having a sense of belonging and their success in school,” said David Smith, spokesman for the school district. “So our work is about making sure that every one of our students feels that sense of belonging and connection to their school environment. And that’s what the work of diversity equity inclusion is about, creating for every student and every staff member that sense of belonging.”


(Video by Darrin Dressler)

Start of DEI debate 

English teacher Caedran Sullivan, who has worked at Shawnee Mission North High School for 15 years, claimed in an April 21 opinion article that the district’s DEI initiatives had led to an environment in which white teachers and students were shamed for their skin color.

The district, which includes six high schools, five middle schools, 34 elementary schools, and four instructional centers, serves a diverse community of students from 14 cities in northeast Johnson County.

“We are being manipulated and intimidated by a divisive ‘woke’ ideology that is creating a culture of contempt and disrespect,” Sullivan wrote. “There is repeated white shaming and a preoccupation with white people as the ‘oppressor.’ ”

Sullivan also claimed teachers were told to refer to students by their preferred names and pronouns, and not tell their parents about their preferred pronouns. The district denied this characterization, FOX4 reported.

The district has had DEI training since 2019. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is commonly understood as an organizational framework that seeks to give voices to historically underrepresented groups.

The diversity aspect is meant to acknowledge differences, such as race, gender, sexual identity and culture. Equity is about correcting systemic imbalance and offering everyone equal opportunities. Inclusion is about supporting and valuing all people and making sure they feel valued within a system, as InclusionHub defines it.

In SMSD, the training is meant to create a more diverse staff, reduce racial disparities and teach from a variety of perspectives, as well as support students of color.

Students walked out on May 10 to protest Sullivan and were met with a smaller group of counterprotesters.

The counterprotest had been organized by the Johnson County GOP. The party rallied community members to the cause, sending out a message that read “We cannot fight this evil by talking about it and doing nothing. We are not called to be pacifists,” the Kansas City Star reported.

Detmer, who sported an American flag T-shirt, said she was there to fight “indoctrination.” 

“They spend so much time trying to talk about their feelings, and now they’ve decided to transgender at school without the parent’s knowledge,” Detmer said.

She believes the district has been losing teachers because of DEI training. Detmer said teachers who held Sullivan’s beliefs were ridiculed or quit and had been replaced by an influx of  indoctrinated outsiders.

“What they’re doing is hiring teachers around the world that are already indoctrinated, already on the same page that they’re going to teach,” Detmer said. “It’s in the framework.”


(Video by Darrin Dressler)

Personalized learning

Smith, the school district spokesman, said in an interview for this story that the DEI training involved many different aspects.

“DEI is not a curriculum. It’s not a set of rules that you follow,” Smith said. “When we talk about our goals, one of the things we talk about is that each student will have a personalized learning plan.”

“As teachers, we’re going to make sure that we know each one of our kids that we connect with, that we make sure we check in with them on a regular basis to make sure they feel a part of the school environment,” Smith added. “That there’s a place for them, that the adults believe in them and their possibilities for success and are willing to support them.”

Aude Negrete, who attended school in the district and who has a son enrolled in one of the district’s elementary schools, said in an interview she supported inclusivity measures.

“My son is bilingual and bicultural,” Negrete said. “It’s important to me that he has pride in that, and that he’s embracing it and that he doesn’t feel shamed for having a different culture than others. I don’t think he does. I do think that the teachers have been wonderful, embracing him, and I really hope that we continue on a path where our students are accepted and loved and comfortable enough to be able to have an effective learning environment.”

The Shawnee district is one of several large school systems to adopt DEI training despite conservative opposition. Kansas City, Kansas, Wichita, Olathe and the Topeka public schools have all adopted some form of equity and inclusion practices, along with several state universities and state departments, such as the Kansas Department of Education.

Republicans on a national and local level had sounded the alarm about DEI, with Republican governors such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis pushing to ban the initiative. In Kansas, Republicans in the Legislature tried to ban state universities from asking faculty members, students and contractors about diversity, equity and inclusion, unless the DEI was thought to be relevant to the person’s field.

The provision was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Elizabeth Ault, a white teacher in the district, said the school system was making strides in inclusion. 

“I think our district is really moving towards trying to make a safe space for a diverse teacher staff which will help our students who don’t look like me,” Ault said. “If you see yourself in people who are working with you, you are more likely to see yourself go ahead.”


David Smith, spokesman for the Shawnee Mission schools, appears at League of Women Voters of Johnson County forum on public education on April 1, 2023, in Overland Park
David Smith, spokesman for the Shawnee Mission schools, appears at League of Women Voters of Johnson County forum on public education on April 1, 2023, in Overland Park. He said the goal of diversity training is to ensure each student feels like there is a place for them. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

School board seats 

Four of the board’s seven seats are up for election this fall, and several conservative candidates are campaigning on shutting down DEI in the district.

Ronald Occhiogrosso, who is facing Mario Garcia III, handed out campaign business cards printed with the slogan “Stop the incessant DEIB/CRT/SEL” during the July BOE meeting.

Occhiogrosso declined to answer questions for this story because he said others had told him Kansas Reflector would twist his words. He explained his views in a candidate survey by the Johnson County Area Chambers of Commerce.

“To be blunt: IT IS CRAZY THAT SCHOOLS ARE WASTING SO MUCH TIME, MONEY, BRAIN CELLS PAYING ATTENTION TO PROMOTING ALL THE ACRONYMS IN OUR SCHOOLS: DEI(B), CRT, SEL,” Occhiogrosso wrote. “Additionally, some of the books that are in the library shelves should not be. So, I am running to do my small part to help turn the tide.”

Lynn McLarty, who is challenging incumbent Jamie Borgman, said she was running to provide a conservative voice and wanted to return to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Newcomers David Westbrook and Logan Austin also face off in November. Austin said in his candidate survey he would stop “wasting money on programs that do not benefit students or their academic performance.”

This article has been updated to reflect Sullivan’s job title. 

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.