‘We want to be that voice’: Parents connect over support for diversity efforts in Carmel public schools 


When Sarah Penquite heard about the time for public comment at the April 2021 school board meeting in Carmel Clay Schools being filled primarily by those speaking out against critical race theory and the district’s diversity initiatives, she felt certain those views didn’t represent the majority of the community.

So, that same week, Penquite launched a private Facebook group for those who support DEI initiatives in CCS to discuss what they heard during the board meeting and elsewhere and share their own experiences.

Expecting a few dozen like-minded friends and neighbors to join, she was shocked when the group – now known as Keep Carmel Clay Schools Inclusive – grew to 500 members in its first few days and reached approximately 1,000 members within a month.

“It proved that (those who didn’t support DEI initiatives) were a minority,” said Penquite, the mother of three CCS students.

As the KCCSI group grew, Penquite recruited members and CCS parents Amal Anthony, Todd Crosby and Diane Hannah to serve as page administrators. Now, it has more than 1,400 members, a total that pleasantly surprises its leaders, who screen each request to join to ensure its members have a tie to Carmel and support DEI work.

“We believe that the majority of parents of students here in Carmel support the schools, support diversity equity and inclusion and social emotional learning and don’t have ill intentions. They want what’s best for their kids,” said Anthony, a mother of two CCS students. “We want to be that voice. We want to support that and get more parents involved to show the schools that (they) have the support of the majority of the community.”

The KCCSI admins are committed to keeping the group nonpartisan, and its members disagree on a variety of issues, according to Hannah, whose son attends CCS. What unites its members is their commitment to support DEI work at CCS, and those who refuse to do that in a civil matter are removed from the group.

Hannah said one reason she joined KCCSI is because she is disheartened by the vitriol of the attacks she’s seen against teachers and school administrators, in Carmel and nationwide.

“What keeps me up at night is the lack of humanity that I see a lot of people directing toward neighbors (who work in education) who care about their kids,” Hannah said.

It’s proof of the need for social emotional learning to be taught in schools, the KCCSI administrators said. SEL, which was introduced in CCS many years ago, aims to help students understand and regulate emotions, build positive relationships, feel and show empathy for others and set positive goals.

SEL opponents have said that it reduces classroom time for academic instruction and has led to falling standardized test scores in CCS, which have decreased similarly to the state average in recent years but remain at or near the top overall. They also have said it’s one way CRT has infiltrated schools, as SEL-inspired surveys can be used to gauge students’ feelings and beliefs on social issues they believe are better addressed at home, for example.

Anthony said she’s seen many positive effects of SEL in recent years, as she’s observed the difference in how students in her child’s grade respond to a neurodiverse classmate who has difficulty regulating emotions. Years ago, the rest of the class would be escorted out of the room for their safety and to give the student space to calm down, she said, but now the other students speak words of support to the neurodiverse student when they notice a situation that could escalate.

“It’s ingrained in them. They’re encouraging to their peers because it’s the right thing to do,” Anthony said. “Instead of that kid melting down and having to take the whole class focus away from it, (the student is) able to redirect in a couple of minutes and rejoin the class and have fun and be part of that group. That’s so important. Neurodiversity is addressed via SEL initiatives, and the kids don’t (realize) they’re doing that. They’re just learning to be good human beings because that’s what you’re supposed to be.”

Crosby, whose three children attend CCS, said he’s troubled by the opposition to DEI work in schools, as he believes the nation’s diversity is among its greatest strengths.

“There’s no evidence provided for this pushback, yet there is evidence for why DEI is needed and why SEL is needed,” he said.

As KCCSI continues to grow, its administrators are having discussions about its future role and reach. They’re considering developing a public Facebook page to share positive stories about DEI and SEL, connect more broadly with the community and fundraise for parentally involved DEI/SEL activities and school board candidates of all parties who are committed to DEI work.

Learn more by visiting the “Keep Carmel Clay Schools Inclusive” page on Facebook or by emailing [email protected].

Clockwise, from back left, Keep Carmel Clay Schools Inclusive administrators Sarah Penquite, Amal Anthony, Diane Hannah and Todd Crosby. (Photo by Ann Marie Shambaugh)

Beyond Carmel

Opposition to diversity, equity and inclusion work in schools isn’t unique to Carmel. In the last year, groups across the nation have claimed that critical race theory has seeped into public schools — not through direct teaching of the idea but rather because of an increased focus on social emotional learning and DEI. CRT, a once little-known academic concept that promotes the idea that racism is inherent in U.S. legal and social systems, has become a fixture in the U.S. debate over how to teach children about the nation’s history and race relations.

The debate has made its way to several state legislatures, including in Indiana, where the senate is considering House Bill 1134, approved by the house of representatives in January, that restricts how teachers can talk about certain controversial topics. As originally proposed, it also required the formation of committees, comprised mostly of parents, to review curriculum, and for teachers to post lesson plans online for parents to view. Its supporters say the bill will help promote transparency.

The Keep Carmel Clay Schools Inclusive admin team is against the bill, which it sees as detrimental to diversity efforts.

KCCSI group members speak out

CIC COVER 0222 KCCSI Seibert copyAmber Seibert

Carmel resident

Teacher in MSD Decatur Township

“If (those who oppose DEI/SEL) could be in any classroom, I think their opinion would be different. Their opinion isn’t coming from experience or expertise. It’s coming from a place of misunderstanding and fear. We all love these kids, and we care about them. I do not know a single teacher who does not want parental involvement.”

CIC COVER 0222 KCCSI BeneshHeather Benesh

Carmel resident

CCS parent

“I have a son (with ADHD) who has struggled. The teachers and the school have poured into him in a way that has absolutely blown my mind. My child has benefited from the initiatives of social emotional learning. He has been able to personally grow as a young child to identify why he feels the way he feels and how to combat that.”

CIC COVER 0222 KCCSI PollieBrian Pollie

Zionsville resident and father

Member of several Carmel organizations

“I was surprised by the difference between the groups that are speaking out about our schools and communities versus what I experience in our schools and communities. I didn’t feel it was necessarily reflective of a lot of people’s opinions and what they think. I do think, to a certain extent, people that are supporting the way things are going make assumptions it’s just going to keep that way and aren’t necessarily as vocal.”

CIC COVER 0222 KCCSI McConnellLuke McConnell

Carmel resident

CCS parent

“If we are committed to educating every child, if that’s the goal, we absolutely have to have social emotional learning, we have to have diversity education, and we have to empower teachers to be able to talk about things that make certain people uncomfortable.”

CIC COVER 0222 KCCSI WiseMichelle Wise

Carmel resident

CCS parent

“I’m dumbfounded why diversity is not seen as a gift to this world. Why do we not want to talk about our history so we can correct it? I question how many people have traveled outside of Indiana or their country to really understand what diversity means and how beautiful it is.”

CIC COVER 0222 KCCSI KowalewskiKirsten Kowalewski

Carmel resident

CCS parent

“I’m frustrated with the idea that SEL is anything besides a support for kids who need it. The idea that it is some kind of indoctrination is so frustrating to me. My kids would not be making it through the schools successfully without those social and emotional supports.”

CIC COVER 0222 KCCSI KoukaEric Kouka

Carmel resident

CCS parent

“Everything that’s been happening for the past two years is attacks on teachers. I think about the future, and it makes me angry, because if we look around our nation, teachers are leaving in record numbers. There’s 600 openings in the state of Indiana alone. Who is going to teach our children in the future if teachers keep feeling this way?”

CIC COVER 0222 KCCSI SowinskiBrad Sowinski

Alexandria resident

Youth services director at Alexandria Library

“Carmel has a standing in the community, so when I started seeing all these issues about Carmel schools, it was alarming to me, because I didn’t see it coming at all. I didn’t see any evidence of it anywhere.”