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As a conservative group criticizes Decatur public school curriculum, locals rally in defense

Long-time Decatur public school teacher Jim Barr (left to right) with Mark Schleeter, and Pat McGlaughlin.

DECATUR — Illinois now requires every elementary and high school teach a unit on Black History, ranging from African civilizations to U.S. slavery to the Civil Rights movement.

This week, Illinois Family Action (IFA), a conservative, Christian group, based in suburban Chicago, held a meeting with about 35 attendees, discussing those changes and attacking the city’s public school system. 

The keynote speaker was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor Stephanie Trussell, who’s also an Illinois Family Action board member. Trussell’s running mate, gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey, was endorsed by IFA in April.

Outside the event, a similar-sized group pushed back on IFA’s agenda. 

Both the protestors and meeting attendees were overwhelmingly white — though 48% of Decatur public school students are Black.

Protestor Jim Barr, a former Decatur public school teacher and president of the Coalition of Rainbow Alliances, said it’s important to teach history in a nuanced and inclusive manner.

“I guess people are sometimes a little bit afraid of what the past is all about. But if we don’t teach history, you know, it tends to repeat itself. Now we need to move forward and keep moving forward instead of backward,” Barr said.

Tom Burrows, a field director for Illinois Family Institute (IFA’s sister organization), helped organize the event.

“From Illinois Family’s perspective, systemic racism is not something that should be indoctrinated into our children,” Burrows said. 

Burrows said his group is “pro-life, pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-liberty.”

In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center described Illinois Family Institute as “heavily focused on attacking gay people and homosexuality in general.”

However, Barr said it’s about teaching the “facts” not “indoctrinating” students.

Kristen Ragusa, a protestor and parent of a child who attended Decatur public schools, agreed.

“I think the biggest part, though, is what we want to do is to make sure that even if kids are, you know, part of the LGBTQ community…young people of color, we want to make sure that they feel welcome in their school system,” Ragusa said.

Ragusa said there was a “reverse problem, where (Decatur public school kids) had a hard time establishing, like GSAs, gay straight alliances, and stuff like that to show support.”

Meanwhile, Burrows encourages parents pull their children out of public schools.

“There’s a group of us inside of Illinois Family Institute, who our entire focus is on Public School Exit. And trying to get children to leave Illinois public schools for safer, better options,” Burrows argued.

Protestors (left to right) Peter Smith-Phillips, Mark Flenner, and Maureen Ruski.

“We decided that due to the really poor performance in the Decatur public school system, that would be a good place to have a meeting,” Burrows went on to say.

Burrows doesn’t believe an increase in funding or resources would help the school district, though.

Ragusa called Burrow’s remarks on school funding “silly.” 71.6% of the city’s public school students are low income.

“I think that, you know, if we’re really concerned about kids’ education…we need to focus on making sure that kids have proper nutrition and the school supplies that they need. I think we need to help teachers provide classroom materials, and probably a proper wage,” Ragusa said.

Harrison Malkin is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow him @HarrisonMalkin

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Harrison Malkin

Harrison Malkin

Harrison Malkin is a politics reporter at Illinois Public Media. He's focusing on elections across the state, particularly the 13th and 15th congressional districts and the gubernatorial race. Malkin studied Politics and Communications at Ithaca College, where he was a nightly newscaster and reporter for WICB. From 2020 to 2021, he was a reporting fellow at the Center on Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College. You can send a tip, recommendation, or note to hmalkin@illinois.edu.

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