When Springfield, Missouri residents cast their votes Tuesday in the local school board race, they will decide two of seven seats which control the district and its employed administrators.
“The board has full legislative authority and control of the district as provided for in state law,” the SPS website states plainly.
It may come as a surprise, then, that one apparently inquisitive board member, Dr. Maryam Mohammadkhani, may have lost her VP role in a 4-3 vote Feb. 28 for asking too many questions and telling the truth.
“They have the whole thing upside down – that supporting and governing is showing up and voting yes,” Mohammadkhani told The Lion in an interview.
The school board member is a physician and parent of three, the oldest of whom graduated from SPS. Finishing the second of a three-year term, she says that asking probing questions about issues, activities and procedures is unwelcome – even mundane, basic questions.
“I can’t ask questions, because every question is perceived as an attack on the system,” she says. “And I ask questions because I’m trying to figure out how things work.”
For example, when Mohammadkhani questioned other board officers about the legality and appropriateness of lunch-hour meetings of a Genders & Sexualities Alliances (GSA) club in one of the district’s K-8 schools, she was met with shock and defensiveness.
Her concern was about whether parents would be properly informed about their children’s involvement with a club that meets during, not after, school, as well as whether it was appropriate for sex to be discussed among students with an adult present.
The student clubs were defended as “student-led,” but Mohammadkhani says that promotional materials suggested the staff-sponsors were leading, even creating the groups.
For example, one article written by an SPS student-participant of a GSA club wrote that it “was started in late 2017 by Ms. Kara Davis, the school’s 7-8th grade counselor. …She says that a counselor from another school inspired her to create GSA.”
“I got inspired to make my own GSA here at Jarrett,” Davis, the counselor, is quoted as saying.
The board officers told Mohammadkhani they would get her more information.
“Well, that information never came,” she recalls.
The last straw? ‘I did not interrupt. She called on me and I said 7 words’
But the reason four school board members voted Mohammadkhani out as an officer stems from an interaction she had with a speaker at the Feb. 23 Youth Empowerment Summit, a conference for Springfield high schoolers hosted and co-planned by Missouri State University (MSU) in Springfield.
The conference is “planned by the NAACP Springfield Chapter and the Missouri State University Unit of Multicultural Services,” an MSU webpage explains.
Mohammadkhani told The Lion that she was present to observe the conference, which involved around 150 SPS students.
The conference began with a plenary session called “Elevating Black Excellence,” led by “Springfield DEI officers,” according to an itinerary obtained by The Lion.
After observing the plenary, Mohammadkhani decided to “peek” into one of the subsequent session breakouts for high school seniors called “Taking Care of Your Health.”
It was led by Marquisa “Keke” Rover, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Burrell Health, which has major contracts with the county and SPS.
The first slide, Mohammadkhani noted, was titled “The Trama Brain.” The second was “Racial Trauma,” which Rover described in some detail before leading a hand-raising exercise.
According to the school board member’s notes from the event, shared with The Lion, Rover deceived the students by telling them they all raised their hands when only about 25% of them did.
“The moderator [Rover] asked the students to close their eyes and raise their hands if they felt that at some point, they had experienced the sort of trauma she had just described,” Mohammadkhani recorded. “Approximately 10 students (about a quarter) raised their hands. The moderator asked them to put down their hands and open their eyes.
“She said, ‘I just want you all to know that every single person in this room raised their hand – because this is real.’
“I raised my hand and waited,” Mohammadkhani notes.
At this point, while waiting to be called on, she records that a fellow board member in the audience, Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate, asked a question:
“Dr. Thomas Tate asked if this [racial trauma] could be experienced indirectly or by watching a video. The moderator answered, ‘absolutely’ and said a few words.”
Then, Rover called on Mohammadkhani.
“The moderator then called on me by saying yes,” the notes continue. “I replied, ‘only about 10 people raised their hand.’ The moderator said, ‘okay, thank you, I’lI make note of that next time.’ Then followed with, ‘I’m glad you had your eyes open while everybody else had theirs closed.’”
Mohammadkhani’s notes contradict the claims reported by the Springfield News-Leader that she interrupted the session.
“I did not interrupt,” she tells The Lion of what happened. “She called on me and I said 7 words.”
Her notes continue:
“I left the room and texted the superintendent right away, but I never heard back. The following morning, I called the Board President who later texted back to express that she would not have time to connect with me until Monday.
“Meanwhile, I responded to a call and subsequent text from Claudette Riley of NL [a reporter at the News-Leader] with allegations that I had interrupted a session on trauma to raise objections about what was being discussed.
“Since I had not spoken out of turn and neither had I objected to the topic, I indicated that her information was incorrect and that I could not discuss it further without speaking with my superintendent. The Board President statement [made to the paper] was issued without contacting me.”
‘So am I hearing that it is OK to lie to children?’
Five days after the incident, more than an hour of a regular board meeting was spent discussing the incident, leading to the 4-3 vote to replace Mohammadkhani as VP with member Scott Crise.
The meeting was packed and heated, with Mohammadkhani standing by her decision to be truthful at the event and Thomas-Tate, who is also an associate professor at MSU, arguing her actions were inappropriate.
“So am I hearing that it is OK to lie to children?” Mohammadkhani asked.
“It is not okay to lie to children, but it’s also not okay to challenge the presenter in front of children during their session that they were engaged in,” Thomas-Tate replied.
“I told the truth,” Mohammadkhani said during the back-and-forth. “And that was an opportunity for the moderator to say, ‘You know what? I think I miscounted. And some people experienced this and some don’t, but let’s talk about this.’”
The two board members who supported Mohammadkhani said they were concerned that the speaker, Rover, who is employed by a contractor of the school, lied to students.
Further support for Mohammadkhani became evident Thursday, when emails sent to the board since the Feb. 28 meeting, obtained through a Sunshine request by the News-Leader, revealed over half were written in opposition to the demotion of the board member.
Election and reorganization
For now, the board will maintain Crise as VP until it reorganizes its officers after Tuesday’s election.
Board member Thomas-Tate, who defended the Burrell DEI speaker’s hand-raising claims, is up for re-election and is teachers’ union-endorsed. Her seat and one other is open.
She is joined in the race by conservatives Chad Rollins and Landon McCarter, both endorsed by Back on Track America, and teachers’ union-supported Judy Brunner, a retired administrator.