School district shells out thousands on controversial emotional survey program with ties to Merrick Garland

A Massachusetts school district has spent more than $30,000 to conduct “social-emotional learning” (SEL) surveys on students and staff led by an educational organization founded by U.S. Attorney…

A Massachusetts school district has spent more than $30,000 to conduct “social-emotional learning” (SEL) surveys on students and staff led by an educational organization founded by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s son-in-law, according to a public records request by Parents Defending Education (PDE), a parental rights in education group.

From 2018 to 2023, Old Rochester Regional School District spent $30,620.25 to partner with Panorama Education through January 2024 to conduct SEL surveys and trainings, a learning concept that has been accused of laying the foundation for Critical Race Theory (CRT), according to a public records obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation. Panorama Education has previously come under fire by parents for its connections to Garland, who directed the FBI in 2021 to “use its authority” on parents who protested at school board meetings.

“It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that parents are concerned that the founder (and current board member) of Panorama Education, which is intimately involved in — and profits from – social emotional learning (SEL), is the son-in-law of Attorney General Garland, who still has not withdrawn the DOJ [Department of Justice] memo referring to parents who attend local board of education meetings as ‘domestic terrorists,’” Caroline Moore, vice president of PDE, told the DCNF. “Parents are right to be alarmed when big tech, unions, DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] consultants, and partisan education activists collude to push SEL surveys in schools to probe sensitive, private information of students and push their political agenda in classrooms across the country.”

Old Rochester Regional School District’s contracts with Panorama Education included access to the organization’s student, teacher, family and community SEL surveys, the public records request showed. The contract gives the school district access to Panorama Education’s technical support, “client-only” training sessions, webinars and newsletters.

The 6-12 grade student SEL survey asks kids how often they “learn about, discuss and confront issues of race, ethnicity and culture in school,” Panorama Education’s website showed. Through a series of questions the survey measures “how diverse, integrated and fair school is for students from different races, ethnicities or cultures.”

“At your school, how often are you encouraged to think more deeply about race-related topics?” the survey asks.

“How well does your school help students speak out against racism?” a survey question read.

In the 2021-2022 school year, the district’s “anti-racism subcommittee” surveyed 6-12 grade students in “cultural awareness and action, diversity and inclusion, and sense of belonging” using Panorama Education, according to a Old Rochester Regional School District yearly report.

Several of Panorama Education’s teacher trainings including its “Social-Emotional Learning as a Vehicle for Equity,” a five-hour course with seven lessons, have been previously criticized for being “suffused with CRT.” After widespread pushback, the trainings were scrubbed from the organization’s website.

In 2021, Senate Republicans argued that Garland had a conflict of interest with Panorama Education, alleging that his FBI investigation of the parents pushing back against CRT and gender ideology in the classroom at school board meetings could help censor conversations aimed at preventing districts from working with the organization.

Garland denied such claims during the House Judiciary Committee hearing, saying he does not believe there is a “reasonable” “conflict of interest” that would justify an ethics investigation into his ties to Panorama Education.

“Panorama Education’s surveys are research-based and designed to improve student performance in the classroom and well-being outside of it,” a Panorama spokesperson told the DCNF. “As strong believers in local control and local decision making, schools can also write their own additional survey questions, ones that are right for their communities and address the issues faced by individual schools and districts. The surveys allow school districts to better understand what students and parents need at a local level, so schools can engage families and deliver focused solutions targeted to family needs. Research shows that when local schools successfully engage parents and families, students earn higher grades, score higher on tests, develop better social skills and are more likely to graduate.”

Nationwide, Panorama has partnered with more than 2,000 districts to provide SEL surveys to students and staff, the organization website showed. Some of the organization’s contracts include Indianapolis Public Schools in Indiana and the New York City Department of Education, the largest school system in the country.

“Most Panorama contracts include fine print on multiple pages about how they own the data from the surveys taken in the classroom,” Scarlen Valderaz, public school advocate associate for PDE, told the DCNF. “What’s concerning is when parents ask school administrators or their school board about the data mining on their children collected by Panorama, they cannot give parents a straight answer because they also don’t know. In addition, Panorama contracts aren’t easily available to parents unless they file a public records request. This lack of transparency drives parents to opt their child out of these surveys and you cannot blame them for it.”

Old Rochester Regional School District did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.