GOP lawmakers grill Ames school officials on Black Lives Matter program

By: - March 9, 2021 12:51 pm

The Iowa State Capitol. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Republican state lawmakers castigated Ames school officials Tuesday for presenting what they called “one-sided” and “offensive” materials as part of a districtwide celebration of Black History Month.

The House Government Oversight Committee held a nearly two-hour hearing on the curriculum and materials associated with what district officials called a “Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.” Lawmakers said they received complaints from some parents and teachers about the curriculum and the process the district used to allow parents, students and teachers to opt out of participating.

Ames Superintendent Jenny Risner said the program was intended to comply with state laws requiring schools to provide students with a “safe and civil” environment. The district has been working for three years to address incidents of bullying, lower graduation rates and higher disciplinary rates of students of color, Risner said.

She said the event was used “to create a context where our students could ask questions, think critically, engage in dialog, be inspired and find themselves in the classroom materials to promote a safe and civil school environment required by Iowa law.”

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said he took offense at part of a resource guide on the district’s website dealing with “the long history of voter suppression in the country,” including characterizing voter ID requirements, gerrymandering and poll closures as “racist political maneuverings” used to limit voting rights.

Kaufmann, an advocate of Iowa’s voter ID law, floor-managed a bill signed into law this week that limited the time voters have to cast absentee ballots and closed polls an hour early during general elections. “I find it to be beyond offensive that you’re using my tax dollars to teach kids that, for instance, the bill that I floor-managed last week, makes me a racist.”

He said the material was “garbage” and told district officials it was an “egregious abuse of your power, an abhorrent use of resources.” He said he could not find an “alternative” viewpoint.

District officials clarified that statement about voter suppression was in a resource packet for teachers, posted online for transparency, and not part of the curriculum.

“What we provided that week an opportunity to be able to share with our students how we center the lives of Black students in our district, district Director of Equity Anthony Jones responded. “It had nothing to do with calling anyone racist. It had nothing to do with devaluing your tax dollars. But I would also say that we also have people in our district who also pay tax dollars who have not been centered in the curriculum.”

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, grilled district members about what they had done to celebrate Bill of Rights Day, National Freedom of Religion Day and National Free Speech Day. “It is most interesting to me that the equity and equality that you speak of appears to disregard character and focus instead of color, race-shaming and scapegoating, turning Dr. Martin Luther King’s dreams on their head,” Holt said.

Republican lawmakers have advanced several bills this year aimed at protecting conversative viewpoints from “cancel culture.” This week, the Senate approved a bill requiring First Amendment training in public schools and universities and barring a list of “divisive concepts” from that training dealing with racism and sexism.

Rep. Holly Brink, R-Oskaloosa, the committee chair, raised complaints from teachers about parents about LGBTQ-related materials that she said were handed out in elementary classrooms, including a glossary of terms. “Do you think that’s age appropriate then,” she asked.

District officials said they were not aware of the materials and asked to see the complaints directed to lawmakers, with names redacted.

Risner said the district set aside a brief period to make students of color and LGBTQ students feel accepted while the rest of the year, the curriculum is geared toward the viewpoint the GOP lawmakers were expressing.

“And because this is controversial, then we’re not supposed to provide acceptance and a space for those students,” Risner said.  “And what I’ll tell you is that our data shows those students are experiencing mental health challenges on a regular basis, they are trying to commit suicide, we have data on that. And so it is my job, ethically and morally, to ensure that I am doing everything I can to set a space for those students where they feel loved, accepted and safe.”

Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines of Des Moines, the ranking Democrat and only Black lawmaker on the committee, praised the district’s efforts.  “As a statement, I would just like to make that as a 15-year educator, and a 41-year diversity trainer, I applaud you for your efforts. I understand that it’s new, that people don’t understand, they get upset and excited about things that may be stated in a way that they don’t accept or understand. But I know that it will get better as you continue to improve the practice,” Gaines said.

Risner acknowledged not giving the community and parents enough time to learn about the curriculum before it was presented and said that would change. The district officials also said they were open to returning for a second meeting to discuss the LGBTQ materials that lawmakers asked about, once they’d had time to review the materials.

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