Kokomo High School flagged on AG's Eyes on Education portal

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Mar. 10—Kokomo School Corporation was among 13 school districts and one university to make Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita's controversial Eyes on Education portal.

Billed by Rokita as a transparency tool, Eyes on Education is a website that encourages members of the public to submit what they believe are inappropriate materials, lessons and other information from schools and universities.

The attorney general said in a statement the portal is meant to be a platform to "view real examples of socialist indoctrination from classrooms across the state."

The portal went live last month with 14 educational institutions being listed, along with accompanying documents, screenshots and social media comments.

What landed Kokomo schools on the list is an image of a Black Lives Matter/LGTBQ+ flag displayed in a classroom. The classroom is at Kokomo High School.

"Kokomo High School officials can confirm that the picture posted online is neither a recent nor an accurate representation of this room, which is located within KHS," Kokomo schools said in a statement.

It is unclear when the photo was taken. The only information available on the portal is the photo itself. The room was closed in late 2022 and remained closed for about year while it was renovated.

"During this time, the room was devoid of any adornment, unoccupied and empty," school officials said.

The room was reopened in January.

The flag made the shortlist of examples when Rokita announced Eyes on Education.

"Black Lives Matter is a political organization," he said in the announcement. "If classrooms choose to display this type of material, all other political organizations must have the same opportunity."

Kokomo school officials said they were not notified prior to the image being posted online.

In an email sent to the AG's office, Kokomo school officials called for the image to be removed.

"No prior communication was made with the Kokomo School Corporation to validate the accuracy, or inaccuracy, of this website's content before it was published," the email states.

It's one of the common criticisms of the roll out of Eyes on Education.

School officials across the state told the Indiana Capital Chronicle they were not contacted by the attorney general before Eyes on Education went public. Kokomo schools confirmed with the Tribune it has not received any follow ups from the attorney general.

"I don't answer to the schools, they don't answer to me," Rokita said in an interview with Fort Wayne's WPTA. "We do validate that the lesson plan is from them. We don't try to investigate or ask them if they're still doing it or not, because even if they stop doing it, here's the point, we've got to make sure bad history doesn't repeat itself."

An AG office spokesperson said most submissions came from teachers and other school employees.

"That's why they went up without us notifying the schools," the spokesperson said.

Lacking context

Much of the accompanying information on the portal is presented as evidence that schools are teaching critical race theory, gender theory and other concepts that have been used as wedge issues by certain factions of the political right, however context is lacking for most of the content on the portal.

For example, there is a political survey posted under Carmel High School. The survey comes from ISideWith.com.

The survey asks respondents their opinion on a number political issues, such as immigration, abortion, military spending and minimum wage. By completing the survey, one can learn which candidate they agree with the most.

It is unclear how the survey was used in class, what class it was part of, if students had to respond, etc. The submission is screenshots of the questions.

What makes this questionable material is also unclear.

Same goes for a matching worksheet from Carmel Clay Schools.

The worksheet asks questions about demographic groups and how likely these groups are to vote a certain way or support certain policies.

There is no information about the worksheet, just an image of one of the pages.

"The examples on our website are made up of questionable lesson plans being taught to students and policies that are being followed," a spokesperson told the Tribune via email. "It is simply to inform parents, so that they aware what is going on in their children's classroom."

Again, it is unclear what makes material questionable or inappropriate. It appears the attorney general unilaterally makes that determination as there is no explanation on the Eyes on Education website.

Several other submissions are outdated. That includes gender support plans from Clark-Pleasant Community Schools and New Prairie United Schools.

The outdated policy from New Prairie likely made the list as there is a passage instructing school staff to not disclose a transgender student's preferred name or pronouns to parents without the student's permission.

Right-wing politicians and some parents argue schools should be required to disclose that information. LGTBQ advocates advise against revealing the sensitive information as it can cause harm to students who might not have a supportive household.

New Prairie's current policy states parents will be involved if a student requests gender transition consideration.

Kokomo schools, along with many other school districts, have requested the outdated information be taken off the website. A spokesperson from the AG's office said the material will not be removed.

Eyes on Education has been updated in the weeks since it first launched to include notes about which policies and information is outdated.

Rokita doubles down

The lack of context and no communication from the AG's office have made up the bulk of criticisms from educators.

And teachers aren't the only ones who have criticized the attorney general's practices.

PEN America, a nonprofit organization and advocacy group for free expression, said the purpose of Eyes on Education is to intimidate teachers.

"This portal will dampen classroom discussion of race and gender, scare librarians out of stocking diverse books and put educators at risk of doxxing and harassment," Kasey Meehan, Freedom to Read Program director, said in a statement. "It doesn't serve Indiana students or parents, and it threatens the freedom to learn for all."

However, the attorney general holds the portal up as proof that what educators have said for the last few years is wrong.

"Remember, for example, the cries that CRT was not being taught? Now these same types are saying — 'well, the items on the Portal are no LONGER being taught, or we fired that teacher, or we fired that vendor, or we retired that policy," a spokesperson said in a statement. "They just proved our point and elevated even further the value of the office in education matters."

The examples on the portal labeled as CRT, include mentions of racism, racial justice, systemic racism and people talking about those concepts.

Critical race theory — a concept taught in some higher education departments — looks at how racism impacts law and power structures. Racism is viewed as systemic, particularly in the legal system, and not just based on one's individual prejudices.

Though the concept is not taught in K-12 education, critical race theory has been co-opted by the political right to mean a broader range of curriculum dealing with race, especially in terms of American history.

The co-opting of the term is an intentional practice, made famous by conservative activist Christopher Rufo.

Rufo, a fellow at right-wing think tank Manhattan Institute, explained in a series of tweets in 2021 that his goal was to turn critical race theory into a toxic phrase where people "read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think critical race theory."

The activist carries considerable influence in conservative spheres.

He's inspired legislation, worked closely with conservative governors, including Florida's Ron DeSantis, and his writings have been published in many of the nation's top newspapers and publications.

Rufo spearheaded the ousting of Harvard University President Claudine Gay over plagiarism accusations.

Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at spencer.durham@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.