Kearney school harassment lawsuit proves we can’t quit teaching kids to fight bigotry

·5 min read
On The Vine: This isn’t just about Buffalo

You don’t have to look far to see undisguised bigotry alleged in Kansas City-area schools. A lawsuit recently filed against the Kearney district claimed a series of incidents targeting and harassing a Black high school student there, including threats of violence. The hateful origins of acts like Saturday’s racially-motivated mass shooting of Black people in a Buffalo, New York, grocery store ferment in darkness — and without some education, some enlightenment, that hatred can explode.

Teachers around the nation are feeling muzzled by recent Republican-backed legislation and local mandates banning schools from educating students honestly about so-called “divisive” lessons about history and race. As a result, it’s never been more vital that our kids learn the appropriate way to respond to the kind of hate that erupted in Buffalo. The deeply misguided teen charged with first-degree murder allegedly posted a screed online demonstrating he was influenced by racism and white nationalist conspiracy theories.

But if schools are prohibited from teaching lessons about fighting bigotry, who will provide this education? Where are the counterarguments to the racism found in the swamps of the internet?

Conservative parents in the Kansas City area and across the country have been demanding more access to school curricula and objecting to what students are taught about the history of American civil rights and race relations. But how many of them are stepping up and teaching their own children about relating to their peers in their own diverse communities?

If schools aren’t allowed to educate about race and parents don’t, that leaves susceptible kids to fall prey to bad actors bent on spreading conspiracies and misinformation. And that fuels hate.

We have seen evidence that may be happening across Missouri and in Kansas over the last few years.

‘Heritage but mostly hate brotha’

In the case of the current Kearney lawsuit, two white high school students allegedly sent the Black student pictures of themselves posing with a Confederate flag, along with spiteful messages and threats: “Heritage but mostly hate brotha.” “I hope I see your Black ass in a tree. Alabama wind chime style.” “I hope you and your monkey family get jumped by all the whites in Kearney.”

Last year, four Park Hill South High School students were punished by school officials after they started an online petition to “bring back slavery.” One of the students involved also later got in trouble for threatening to shoot up the school.

The teen charged in the Buffalo attack started out with similar odes to hate and violence. A year ago, he was questioned by law enforcement after he threatened to carry out a school shooting and commit suicide. He was held briefly for a mental evaluation and released.

In his 180-page, venom-filled document, the teen identified himself as a white supremacist and believer of the far-right “replacement theory,” which holds that white people are intentionally being displaced and devalued by minorities and Democrats in the U.S. It’s a concept the accused murderer openly embraced after reading about it online. GOP hardliners and right-wing media outlets have increasingly touted the bogus idea openly in recent years.

Luckily, some conservative leaders are pushing back. Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming this week specifically criticized GOP House leadership, which she said in a tweet “has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy and antisemitism.” Her GOP colleague Adam Kinzinger of Illinois agreed with her. Tuesday, Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt firmly denounced the idea of replacement. “It’s an outrageous theory,” he told a Star reporter. “I totally rejected it as any reasonable discussion to be had.”

Turning Point USA school chapter in Lee’s Summit?

It hasn’t been that long since students were isolated in the depths of the pandemic, without peer support networks and access to familiar points of education and discourse. In such a void, people can find themselves immersed in dark, hate-filled corners of the internet. We’ll never know if the Buffalo shooter would have become radicalized had he been in a classroom, learning civics and the true history of racism and diversity in America.

In the Lee’s Summit School District, parents are questioning in social media some students’ attempts to create a local chapter of the far-right advocacy group Turning Point USA, whose founder Charlie Kirk has supported the same replacement theory the Buffalo shooter espoused. The district has been at the center of controversy over race relations among students and its leadership in recent years.

School district officials say no student-led Turning Point USA chapter has been officially approved or denied. “That will depend on their application,” said Katy Bergen, the district spokeswoman. On Tuesday, hundreds of students, most opposed to the club, protested outside an informational meeting called to assess interest in the chapter. Students are still early in a 10-step process with their application to become a club. Before it’s official, the school principal needs to determine whether the club mission is in line with school policy. An option would be to allow Turning Point students to meet in the building before and after instruction time without being officially sponsored by the school.

Students opposed to a Turning Point USA chapter said they support a club where conservative students feel safe to share their views. But many think it’s “problematic” for that group to be connected to a national group that espouses anti-LGBTQ and racist ideology, said Noah Symes, a sophomore and protest organizer. Hundreds of students signed a petition to block a chapter in Lee’s Summit.

It’s a good thing that parents are at least questioning the formation of a Turning Point USA student group. But we think they need to go a step further. Instead of directing their questions at the district, they should also examine how they are dealing with subjects related to respecting others at home.

Fear of retaliation has disarmed teachers whose job it would have been to educate students about racial issues. So the responsibility falls to parents, who need to have those conversations early and often with their children.

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