The local battle over issues including equity, social justice and critical race theory has escalated out of the school board arena and into the hands of lawyers.

A private organization called Equality in Education submitted a large data request to Rochester Public Schools through a Minneapolis-based law firm, asking for documents, curriculum, emails, and even text messages and social media posts that may relate to the contentious topics.

As a government organization, RPS is required to provide documents to those who ask for them. What’s unusual about this request is its sheer size and scope. The data request is 41 pages long and asks for a substantial volume of material from every school building in the district.

RELATED: Schools, teachers find themselves in the crosshairs of critical race theory debate

“It just eats up hours and hours and hours of time during a global pandemic when we ought to be focused on not only COVID, but reading and math,” said Kent Pekel, RPS interim superintendent.

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The Post Bulletin requested an interview with representatives of Equality in Education. In response, the organization submitted a statement through its attorney, Nicholas Morgan.

“Equality in Education is a group of concerned parents and taxpayers residing in the Rochester School District. They made their request in accordance with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act to obtain information on the School District’s curriculum due to concerns about its quality and content. Previous informal efforts by our members to obtain information from School District administration and staff were not responsive.”

Pekel has repeatedly stated that Rochester Public Schools does not teach critical race theory, which is a decades-old, university-level research topic.

In recent months, members of the public have disputed that assertion during the public comment section of the school board meetings.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the technical definition of critical race theory is:

  • “(an) intellectual and social movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour.”

In the data request, Equality in Education provided several concepts that could be interpreted as critical race theory. It also referred to the "nature of CRT" as "evolving and malleable."

Pekel commented on one of the concepts provided by the data request, which states:

  • Acknowledgement that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicate racial inequality. This dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism.

“When they talk about the notion of racism being systemically baked into systems in our society, that’s not something we’re teaching,” Pekel said. “It’s something that -- certainly -- many of our students are talking about and grappling with.”

The data request is not solely focused on critical race theory. It also asks for material related to other topics such as equity, social justice, cultural competency, race, and intersectionality.

Rochester is not the first district to receive this kind of request. While many smaller districts in southeast Minnesota have not received such requests, there have been several submitted to larger districts in the Twin Cities area.

Tony Taschner, communications director for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools, said they’ve started receiving so many requests that they’ve hired two part-time employees to help fulfill them. One of the requests, he said, was so large it resulted in about 6,000 pages of documentation.

The request submitted to RPS undoubtedly will result in thousands of documents as well. Rochester is the seventh largest school district in the state, with nearly 3,000 employees and 17,800 students.

There also will be a financial cost to the school district to respond to the request. According to state statutes, the district is allowed to charge for the time and effort of compiling the documentation. It is not, however, able to charge for other processes, such as redacting sensitive information that may be in some of the emails.

The data request asks for material from a large range of sources, including curriculum, conferences and seminars teachers have been able to attend, PowerPoint decks, emails and text messages on government-funded cell phones.

It asks for data going back two years.

According to Pekel, the request’s subjective nature adds to the difficulty of fulfilling it. For example, part of the request asks for curriculum “with a sociological or cultural theme, (or) any courses with a curriculum that includes a discussion of current events.”

“Those are highly subjective,” Pekel said. “That’s not really just data production. It’s review and interpretation.”