By Dan Spalding
WINONA LAKE — Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita on Thursday night urged hundreds of people in Winona Lake to heavily scrutinize local schools on policies they think run afoul – namely the teaching of concepts connected to Critical Race Theory.
The state’s top legal figure also took aim at social-emotional learning, an educational construct used to support students’ well-being that is deeply integrated into Warsaw Community Schools.
Rokita’s visit, at the invitation of Kosciusko County Commissioners, was used to tout his recently released Parents Bill of Rights, which serves as a guide for parents on how public school curriculum is developed, who controls it and how to become involved in shaping local school policy.
Much of the two-hour discussion at the Winona Heritage Room focused on concerns with Critical Race Theory, which has been a topic among academics for decades but has become a hot button issue across the country for those who contend aspects of the concept are being shoved into public schools in an attempt to divide the races.
Rokita released his bill of rights directed at parents last month as some schools come under scrutiny over what is taught in class. Some states and counties have attempted to ban critical race theory.
It became an issue locally when a resident, Chris Magiera, asked the county commissioners to look into the issue and was told by county attorney Ed Ormsby that that was already under discussion.
On Thursday night, Commissioners Bob Conley and Brad Jackson both said they don’t plan on seeking a ban on CRT in local schools, acknowledging it falls outside their jurisdiction.
Despite county officials earlier saying they were looking into CRT, Conley said the commissioners “in no way shape or form contrived or conspired to tell school systems what to do. That’s never ever part of our conversation. It’s not our intent. Our intent was to provide a forum.”
“The reason we did this is we took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America,” Conley said, drawing strong applause from the crowd.
The size of the crowd, he said, “speaks volumes” about the community’s interest in the issue.
Attorney Jay Rigdon was critical of the county commissioners inserting themselves into conversations about managing social studies curriculum. He said the idea of any school in this county being controlled by the National Education Association was “laughable.”
Rigdon argued that recent actions, meetings “and this kind of talk” make it more difficult to get orthopedic employees, executives and companies to make this area their home.
Rigdon said county officials look as if they’d rather not address racism.
Jackson countered by saying the country has made significant strides against racism.
“I think now, we obsess over it so much that it makes it more of an issue than it really is. I think we were moving in a positive direction. I think now, we’re driven off course as a nation,” Jackson said.
The meeting consisted of a presentation by Rokita, recapping his 16-page pamphlet and then an extended question and answer session with the commissioners and Rokita.
Officials said they specifically invited area school leaders to participate in the discussion. While some teachers offered their thoughts, nobody representing any of the area school districts spoke.
Thursday’s meeting was punctuated at times with loud applause from those against the teaching of CRT in public schools and others who are upset the commissioners are getting involved in a school policy. Near the end of the two-hour meeting, a woman was removed after she complained loudly that she had sought to ask a question for more than an hour and was ignored.
Rokita’s booklet says CRT cannot be taught using SEL. “Discriminatory teachings such as CRT and the 1619 Report are consistently being backdoored into Indiana classrooms, contrary to state and federal law,” the document said.
“Indiana schools have witnessed an influx of SEL into Indiana classrooms, contrary to state and federal law,” the document said. “Theories that denigrate a class of students have no place in the classroom.”
SEL seeks to support students in different ways. While it’s a broad concept, some of it is intended to help students understand how to get along with people and appreciate other people’s perspectives.
During his speech, Rokita added, “Asking kids to be in one group and sit on one side of the room because you’re one color and on the other side of the room if you’re another color and act as oppressed versus oppressors can be highly discriminatory.”
At one point, Rokita was talking about how broad concepts filter down from the federal level. He said they learned that the U.S. Department of Education had determined that some content provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center had met certain standards.
“Maybe you don’t know about the Southern Poverty Law Center, but it is a hateful group,” Rokita said.
More than a dozen people, including some who said they traveled from Brownsburg, Madison County, Fort Wayne and Goshen, spoke or asked questions.
As the question and answer period continued, Magiera, who asked the county to look into banning CRT, railed against public schools.
“There is a simple solution to this dilemma … you spend eternity playing Whack-A-Mole with these various things unless you do one simple thing. We must have separation of school and state. There must be separation from education and state. You will never have peace as long as government schools exist.”
The notion of closing all public schools – extreme by any measure and generally unheard of – drew no reaction.
Members of Purple for Parents Indiana spoke more than once against CRT. The group, according to its website, seeks to “protect children from harmful agendas saturating the education system.”
Circumstances became testy toward the end as people began interrupting speakers.
One woman who has been an advocate of Black Lives Matter in the past year sought to speak for more than an hour and then eventually began complaining loudly. One of the commissioners told her she’d didn’t have the floor and she was then escorted out of the building.
The person trying to escort her appeared to touch her arm, which led the woman to loudly and repeatedly warn him not to touch her.