Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita speaks Thursday evening while Commissioners (L to R) Cary Groninger, Bob Conley and Brad Jackson listen. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita speaks Thursday evening while Commissioners (L to R) Cary Groninger, Bob Conley and Brad Jackson listen. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
WINONA LAKE – Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita was ecstatic about the turnout Thursday evening to the two-hour panel discussion on his Parents’ Bill of Rights and critical race theory (CRT).

“I’m excited and pleased by the turnout because this follows what we really did the Parents’ Bill of Rights for,” he said afterward. “We saw that parents were finally getting engaged, more than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. And we encourage that because this is about raising a family at the end of the day. A nuclear family is the absolute foundational building block of society, and parents wanting to know more about the education of their children should be applauded. We saw that here tonight.”

He said there were different views and a pattern that “involvement is good” and parents should expect lesson plans for what their children are being taught. Rokita said the Parents’ Bill of Rights was a tool for parents to do their due diligence.

The hundreds of attendees not only included Kosciusko County residents, but also at least Elkhart, Allen and Madison counties. He said he wasn’t planning to go on tour with his Parents’ Bill of Rights but was asked to come by the Kosciusko County Commissioners.

“I think these commissioners are within their duty to say, ‘Hey, you know, we have an executive responsibility to the taxpayers. This is a taxpayer issue. I don’t comment on their other business, but as to this, again, growing our best asset, that’s everyone’s responsibility so I thought it was a good idea to come on their invitation.”

Commissioner Brad Jackson said, speaking for himself, after the event, “I don’t see at this point, since we had a forum, that we would move forward with a resolution because it really is just a statement. It’s not an ordinance. And we were able to make statements tonight and, I think, for the most part, have good dialogue and I think, from what I saw, evenly divided.”

He said the dialogue was good, but he is concerned about what is being taught at schools.

Cary Groninger, commissioner, said at this point the Commissioners were still processing everything that came in and whether or not they wanted to move forward with something. He said that was something the Commissioners as a group would have to discuss.

“Tonight, I was here personally to hear from the public and hear what they had to say,” he said.

On June 22, the commissioners were asked by Dr. Chris Magiera to consider a resolution and ordinance prohibiting or banning of CRT to county employees and over the school system in Kosciusko County. County attorney Ed Ormsby responded that the Commissioners were under review of a CRT proposed policy already and that Rokita was coming to Kosciusko County to speak on the issue. On June 30, it was announced that Rokita would be presenting testimony before the Commissioners at a July 8 special meeting. That event was moved from the old county courthouse to the Winona Heritage Room to allow for more people to attend.

The Winona Heritage Room has a capacity of 1,200, compared to the courthouse’s 120, and hundreds of people attended Thursday.

Jackson began the discussion by stating that the purpose of the evening was “for all of us to learn from each other in a respectful environment. That’s the key.” Most of the night was, except for one woman who left before she could be escorted out after not getting called on to comment so she raised her voice.

Following a pledge and prayer, Rokita spent over a half hour explaining his Parents’ Bill of Rights. Its six points (summarized) are that  parents have the right and expectation to question and address your child’s school officials and school board members at publicly designated meetings with proper notice of the meeting provided;  to question and review curriculum; that the curriculum aligns with Indiana and federal law; to participate in the selection and approval of academic standards for the state; to obtain educational materials and curriculum taught to your child; and to run as a school board candidate.

For the document in its entirety, visit www.in.gov/attorneygeneral.

“This history, this heritage, is all very relevant to the topic that we’re meeting about tonight,” Rokita said after discussing America’s history and what makes America exceptional. “Because we must ask ourselves this question: Of all of the things you just heard me say, do our children hear it in the classroom? If not, what do they hear? Are they being taught these important truths?”

He said in a recent survey of 18- to 29-year-olds, that age group has a 36% approval of their country. Whereas, 65 and older have over 80% approval of the country.

“What happened? Some of it is that we’re allowed to mature. Some of it is that we’re allowed to grow old and learn and can appreciate things. But that doesn’t explain that gap,” Rokita said, saying something else was afoot. He said there are organized movements to make sure younger people don’t have pride in their country. “Not only do certain activists want America’s real history omitted from textbooks and lessons – this is not Todd Rokita’s opinion, this is fact – but they agitate for replacing it with alternative claims.”

He said he was not there to debate different versions of history, but to advocate for parents who want to have and must have responsibility for raising their families. He said part of that was parents knowing what their kids were being taught when they’re not around.

Rokita said depending on how CRT is taught, a person might have an Equal Protection claim or a Civil Rights claim.

“Because asking kids to be in one group and sit on one side of the room because they’re one color, and on another side of the room because they’re another color and act as oppressors and oppressed can be highly discriminatory,” he said.

Kristy Oberman, Winona Lake, was the first person from the audience to speak. She talked about how teachers stand with parents.

Russ Reahard, North Manchester, asked Rokita if he was aware of the curriculums that may be endorsed or promoted by the State Board of Education or the Department of Education and the five curriculums he heard concerned about that are being pushed by the National Education Association. Those five curriculums are CRT, the 1619 Project, the Core curriculum, social-emotional learning and the comprehensive sex education. Rokita responded he didn’t know, that was a separately appointed office. But he “did know” that the NEA, the largest union of teachers, on Wednesday said it was going to support CRT 100%.

Rhonda Miller, president of Purple for Parents of Indiana, said the organization was started in fall 2019 as a social media platform for parents to express their concern for education in Indiana.

“We advocate for parental rights and school transparency, as well as for protections of children,” she said.

Purple for Parents has since become a nonprofit. Their first legislative effort was this year to repeal Indiana’s obscenity exemption. She said it allows schools and libraries to “legally distribute pornography to children.”

Brett Carpenter, Kendallville, asked about what recourse does a teacher have if they stand up against teaching CRT and about school boards not having to allow public comment at their meetings and not allowing criticism of any of their policies or board members.

Rokita said the teacher shouldn’t expect NEA to help them. As for the criticism of school boards at meetings, he suggested Carpenter get a second opinion from an attorney and see if there’s a Title VI violation of rights or other discriminatory practice. He also said Carpenter should talk to his state legislature about changing the law regarding public comments at school board meetings.

Brian Smith, Leesburg, said it came to his attention that Zimmer Biomet submitted a letter to the County Commissioners regarding CRT, and he thought that also was sent to Rokita. Smith asked if the Commissioners could tell the public what was in that letter and what Zimmer Biomet’s thoughts were.

Rokita said he didn’t receive that letter. Jackson, however, said that while he didn’t have it memorized, “The main thing they wanted to make sure, which I support, is that we are a community that welcomes people and makes everyone feel welcome. For some reason, that seems like what the debate is, and that’s not really what the debate is.”

Later, Rokita said Zimmer Biomet and all area school officials were all invited to take part in the panel but declined.

Magiera said, “I have a simple and short comment ... there is a simple solution to the dilemma that we speak about. You all will 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 of education and state. You will never have peace as long as government schools exist.”

Attorney Jay Rigdon made a couple of points. He said there are a lot of people around the state who think of a lot of good things when they think of Kosciusko County, “but some of the actions in the last couple of months, and I’m particularly addressing our county commissioners, as well as tonight, kind of caused them to believe that if our county is faced with a problem, such as racism, we just deny its existence so we don’t have to take steps to solve anything.”

He called Rokita’s Parents’ Bill of Rights and attached information insulting to the voters of Indiana.

His final point was that government officials are expected to learn what their responsibilities are and aren’t by reading the statutes or “even their own websites.” Among the powers listed for the county commissioners and even the state attorney general, there is no mention of managing or creating social studies curriculum.

In part of his response, Jackson said, “In regards to racism, I don’t think anybody’s denying that it exists in some fashion. I think we’ve come a long, long ways. ... I think we’ve come a long ways and I think now we obsess over it so much, that it makes it more of an issue than it is. I think we were moving in a positive direction. I think now we’ve drifted off course as a nation.”

As hour two continued on, there was concern expressed about social-emotional learning, while others defended it. Another representative of Purple for Parents said social-emotional learning was designed to shift the role of parents to the government and that CRT was helping to dismantle the country.

One Fort Wayne woman said parents were fighting against large organizations, and Rokita said CRT was part of the Marxist ideology. A Fort Wayne military veteran said he’s had teachers and students tell him CRT was already in the schools, while a woman named Paula said CRT was a learning opportunity for everyone. A former Akron teacher said the way she perceived CRT was that it was a way to teach empathy.

A Brownsburg man said, “A bill is not going to stop what teachers are learning in higher education” and that teachers teach what they want to teach. He said there was a lot of wrong things being taught in schools besides CRT.