Top school officials in Loudoun County are again defending the district’s racial equity work, following complaints from some parents that Loudoun is indoctrinating students with “critical race theory” — allegations that have now spurred a lawsuit.

The controversy dates back to last summer, when angry mothers and fathers began seizing on tidbits — such as the nearly half-million dollars Loudoun spent on an equity consultant, or later, a minutes-long video recording of a classroomin which a teacher discusses critical race theory— to argue that the system is teaching White students to feel ashamed of being White, because their race means they have historically been part of an oppressive system.

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that explores how policies and the law fuel systemic racism. The theory in part declares that racism is the product of systems, not individuals, and therefore interwoven into daily life and history in America.

But some critics have used the term to refer more broadly to efforts to address systemic racism.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, interim superintendent Scott A. Ziegler repeatedly has denied charges that Loudoun is teaching critical race theory to students. Instead, he has explained that the school system is about two years into racial equity work spurred initially by a pair of high-profile reports that found widespread racism was imperiling Black and Hispanic students’ progress in the county. In response, Loudoun produced a 22-page “Plan to Combat Systemic Racism” that called for developing alternative forms of discipline, hosting teacher trainings to foster “racial consciousness” and forbidding students from wearing the Confederate flag.

But no part of the plan involved teaching students critical race theory, Ziegler emphasized repeatedly on Tuesday. At one point, school board chair Brenda Sheridan asked him to address the issue directly.

“When you are asked, ‘Is Loudoun County Public Schools teaching critical race theory?’ ” Sheridan said, “what is the answer?”

“The short answer is that we are not teaching critical race theory to our students,” Ziegler said, calling the theory “a subject for academics.”

He then sought to debunk several pieces of evidence he said parents often point to when they assert that Loudoun teachers are forcing critical race theory onto students. In particular, he referred to what he called a new trend in which people Photoshop the school system’s logo onto resources tied to critical race theory to “imply Loudoun County Public Schools is using those resources.”

Still, some parents remained unconvinced — and on Wednesday, a group of Loudoun families filed a lawsuit intended to kill some of the equity programs Loudoun administrators had explained to the public not 24 hours before. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on the parents’ behalf by the conservative advocacy group Liberty Justice Center, claims Loudoun has violated the Constitution.

Specifically, the suit takes issue with Loudoun’s “Equity Ambassador Program” and its “Bias Reporting System.” The ambassador program, launched last year, recruits a small group of students from throughout the district to meet regularly with top administrators so they can share anonymous accounts of racial harassment experienced by their peers. The bias reporting system allows students to anonymously report instances of racist behavior by peers and teachers using an online form.

The suit claims the equity ambassador program violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal treatment before the law, because it is open only to students of color.

Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard said the program is open to students of all races who meet a set of criteria such as having a passion for social justice. He acknowledged that a draft version of an Q&A about the program at one point stipulated that ambassadors must be students of color, but said the draft was “released prematurely” — and that race is no longer a requirement.

The suit also alleges the ambassador program violates the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, because the program “discriminates on the basis of viewpoint.” The suit claims the bias reporting system also “chills speech.”

The lawsuit asks for an enjoinment barring the Loudoun school system from operating both initiatives. Byard said Wednesday that the school system does not comment on pending litigation.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, school officials discussed the history of racism in Loudoun County, as well as data that shows its continuing legacy. Staffers reviewed demographic data for the Northern Virginia school system, which is one of the nation’s wealthiest and also one of the most rapidly diversifying districts.

In 1995, Loudoun staffers noted, the school district had about 20,000 students, the vast majority of whom were White. But as of 2020, the district had more than 81,000 students, and a majority of them were Black, Hispanic or Asian.

The system also is witnessing wide gaps in academic opportunity and the administration of discipline. As of the 2019-2020 school year, staffers said, Black and Hispanic students were about twice as likely to be suspended as were students overall. That same year, Black and Hispanic students achieved significantly lower on-time graduation rates than their White and Asian peers.

Loudoun’s top brass, including the superintendent, said that the school’s recent anti-racism work is driven by a desire to put an end to these kinds of unequal outcomes.

Lottie Spurlock, Loudoun’s director of equity, and Traci Townsend, the district’s supervisor of equity, said the school system is pursuing true “education equity,” defined as what happens with the elimination of “the predictability of student outcomes” based on factors such as race, gender, Zip code and socioeconomic status.

Neil Spurlock and Townsend showed a cartoon meant to explain the difference between equality and equity. In the “Equality” scenario, three stunted and barely alive plants received equal amounts of water. In the “Equity” scenario, three vibrant and thriving plants received different amounts of water.

Slevin, Loudoun’s director of teaching and learning, cited the push for equity as one of the main motivations for holding anti-bias trainings for teachers. The trainings have been maligned by some parents as a sort of Trojan horse used to introduce critical race theory into teachers’ worldviews and thus their classrooms — and students’ minds.

But Slevin said Loudoun’s “culturally responsive teaching” is really meant to ensure that educators know how to reach every one of their students, who hail from widely disparate backgrounds, homes and cultures. For example, this form of teaching requires rethinking the types of resources available to students in Loudoun school buildings.

“If we’re not thinking about, ‘Are our libraries representative of the changing demographics in Loudoun County?’ ” Slevin said, “then we’re missing a chance for a student to pick up a book and see a character that looks like them.”

Loudoun staffers also outlined other efforts to promote racial justice, including revising the district’s agreement with law enforcement, collecting qualitative data on racial harassment and revising hiring protocols, practices and procedures to ensure a more diverse workforce. Loudoun’s teaching staff has long been overwhelmingly White.

Several school board members said Tuesday that they supported the work Loudoun is doing.

“Informing students about a debate does not mean indoctrinating them with that theory — we teach capitalism, fascism and communism, so we should absolutely teach about racism,” said board member Atoosa Reaser. “It’s the only way the next generation can learn from the mistakes we’ve made.”

But others said they are worried the school system is failing to clearly communicate the nature, scope and purpose of its equity efforts to the public. Member Jeff Morse said he thinks “our message is getting lost,” and that the community has been plunged into “incredible turmoil” as a result.

Member John Beatty said he understands why some in the public have become convinced Loudoun is pushing critical race theory inside classrooms. “We should be trying to show the differences rather than just say it’s not happening,” he said. “We get screenshots and documents and it’s got the same terms in a lot of those situations, so I think that’s where the confusion is happening.”

Ziegler said he understands that some families are frustrated and bewildered by the fact that what he calls “culturally responsive instruction” shares certain key words with critical race theory. But he said the overlap is unavoidable.

“All of us in this work [of equity and diversity] are using this common vocabulary because it defines this work,” he said.

Harris Mahedavi, another board member, said he hopes that school officials can find a new vocabulary entirely. He said he thinks most Loudoun County residents would support the school system in its equity work — if only they could grasp it.

“That would be my ask,” Mahedavi said. “How do we dial the consulting-speak language down into something folks can understand?”