Students criticize Idaho education indoctrination task force

When Wency Suo heard Idaho’s lieutenant governor was creating a task force to look into “indoctrination” in schools, she had a mix of emotions: surprise, disappointment and anger.

At the task force’s first meeting, Suo, a rising high school junior in Boise, noticed something right away — the absence of people of color on the task force.

She said she already distrusted the intentions behind the task force, and what she saw during the first meeting worried her even more.

Caitlin Yang, a rising junior in Boise, said she was skeptical at first when she heard of the task force. When she saw the first meeting, it was clear “what they wanted and what they wanted to take away,” she told the Idaho Statesman. That, she said, included preventing students’ right to be “fully educated on issues about race and the history of race.”

Suo and Yang — founders of the Idaho Asian American Pacific Islander Youth Alliance — are part of a group of students who have organized to speak up about the task force assembled by Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin to look into claims of indoctrination in Idaho schools. The task force met for the first time last month, and will hold its second meeting Thursday at 1 p.m. in the Lincoln Auditorium in the Idaho State Capitol. A live stream will also be available.

This group of students said they want public officials to listen to them — to let them talk about their experiences in the classroom and how they feel about claims of indoctrination.

But so far, several students said they have been largely left out of the conversation. And McGeachin’s office said in an email there is no public testimony scheduled for the second meeting.

Without their input, the students are scared about how their education might be impacted moving forward.

“Unequivocally, in my classes, we have never learned about critical race theory,” said Shiva Rajbhandari, a rising junior in Boise. “We have never ranked ourselves in order of power and privilege. We’ve never once held up one race as better than the other. The idea that teachers are somehow indoctrinating students … is frankly outrageous.”

Why Idaho students began to organize

Students started organizing earlier this year when legislators were discussing House Bill 377, a bill sparked by discussions of critical race theory in schools. The bill was signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Brad Little.

The bill prohibits funding to schools that direct students to “affirm, adopt or adhere” to the idea that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is “inherently superior or inferior” or that people of a certain race or identity are “inherently responsible for actions committed in the past.”

It came at a time when critical race theory was making headlines, and around when the Legislature moved to cut funds to universities in an attempt to target social justice programs.

When lawmakers were discussing HB 377, students started to put together protests and speak out, worried about the impacts these talks would have on their public education.

Rajbhandari sees what’s happening now with the indoctrination task force as an extension of what’s been happening in Idaho for months.

“We’re kind of talking about really similar things today, except now on a bigger scale,” Rajbhandari told the Idaho Statesman in a video interview. “What started off as this budget compromise because these far-right legislators were holding our state education budget hostage, ended up growing into this bigger thing which now is the indoctrination task force and this witch hunt that is kind of taking hold in Idaho.”

He said he thinks the task force is part of a campaign to discredit public education and “maintain systemic injustice.” He took direct aim at the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which during the legislative session targeted higher education institutions and public schools.

Students also said they felt the use of the term “critical race theory” has only served as a fear-mongering tactic.

“No one really knows what it is,” said Yvonne Shen, who is going into ninth grade. “I think that’s why legislators are using critical race theory, because it’s this scary-sounding phrase.”

According to a post on the American Bar Association’s website, the theory “recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past.”

“Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation,” the website said. The theory “cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice.”

A number of students attended the first meeting of the indoctrination task force, some with signs opposed to the task force.

“I thought it was important to counteract this craziness that has taken hold in Idaho’s leadership,” said Rajbhandari, who was at the first meeting.

Now, teenagers to graduate students are planning another show of protest against the task force.

On Monday, students gathered to spray paint T-shirts with phrases such as “Hands off our schools.” They hope to send a message to the task force.

Helina Alvarez, a graduate student at Boise State University, said she sees the task force as “very partisan” and wants to take a stand against it. She was joined Monday by a number of other graduate students who said they want a say in their education.

“It’s truly unfair because we go to school, public school, to get the best education that we can,” she said, “and to have that limited and altered is pretty disgusting.”

‘The real problem is that we’re not learning enough’

Several high school students who are part of the effort said they’ve never been taught critical race theory in school.

Students said they don’t want to be further limited in what they’re learning. Rather, those fighting against the task force said they want to be learning more about events such as the Tulsa Race Massacre and the treatment of immigrants in this country.

“They’re saying there’s this whole liberal indoctrination in schools,” said Shen, a founder of the IAAPIYA. “But it’s really more of the opposite. … We’re skimming over parts of history.”

When they don’t learn something in school, students take it upon themselves to do their own research — whether through social media, books or talking to friends.

Shen said she feels like the task force created “a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

“We want more education, not less. The real problem is that we’re not learning enough at the moment,” she said. “But they want to make it so we’re learning even less.”

She had a message for the task force: “We want them to know that, ‘Hey, Idaho’s already last in the entire nation when it comes to education funding, and we’re not learning enough in school. So you guys creating this task force is literally making the problem worse.’ ”

‘It would be great if they could just truly listen’

When she announced the formation of the task force, McGeachin said she thought the issue was “one of the most significant threats facing our society today.” A press release from the lieutenant governor’s office in April said the task force was an effort to “protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism.”

“We must find where these insidious theories and philosophies are lurking and excise them from our education system,” McGeachin said in a statement in April.

The three other meetings this summer will be devoted to examining K-12 and higher education, with the last meeting meant to focus on courses of action and recommendations.

So far, the task force has not cited any specific examples to support their claims of indoctrination of students.

Students who spoke to the Statesman say task force members haven’t listened to their experiences in the classroom.

“If this task force had gotten together and reached out to student leaders, community leaders in education, they would have learned a lot more about the truth,” said Graf Kirk, an incoming senior at Boise State University. “And I would recommend that be the next thing they do.”

Students hope they can get members of the task force to listen to them now.

“It would be great if they could just truly listen, like active listening, and not just have their values (imposed) on students’ education,” Alvarez said. “I don’t know if they’re going to give us a chance at this next meeting for anyone to speak up because their agenda has been chaotic … so if they’re not going to hear us out, then maybe there will be other messages to get across what we’re feeling.”

Rajbhandari said fear is preventing task force members from listening to what this group has to say.

“What McGeachin and the indoctrination task force and the Idaho Freedom Foundation are most scared of is student voices and education itself,” Rajbhandari said.

Students who are part of the effort are hoping to raise awareness about what’s happening with the task force, and to educate others about what is going on in their schools.

“The key to all of this is education. … Knowledge is power,” Shen said. “And so if people know about what’s going on, then they’re less likely to just let it slide by their fingers.”

What students are fighting for in Idaho

Students said they are fighting for their education — and they don’t want members of the task force to be meddling in it.

“We want a full education that will teach us the things that we need and have the right to,” Yang said.

Students want “a fair, accurate education equal for all students throughout Idaho,” Alvarez added.

Going forward, some students said they weren’t sure how this would impact their education.

But they weren’t optimistic.

“I’m terrified of what they’re going to try to take away,” Yang said. “And I’m even more terrified that they probably would be able to and they probably will and that makes me incredibly sad and incredibly terrified.”

Let us know how you feel about claims of indoctrination in Idaho schools in the survey below. Click here if you’re having trouble viewing the poll.

Becca Savransky covers education for the Idaho Statesman in partnership with Report for America. The position is partly funded through community support. Click here to donate.

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