February 7, 2024

Indiana’s AG launched a tip line for controversial classroom material. It’s raising concerns about accuracy and privacy.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita has unveiled an online portal for complaints about the teaching of race, gender, and political ideology in schools, but not without controversy. - Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita has unveiled an online portal for complaints about the teaching of race, gender, and political ideology in schools, but not without controversy.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The Indiana Attorney General has unveiled an online portal for complaints about the teaching of race, gender, and political ideology in schools — an aggressive move that raises concerns about privacy and the veracity of the material made public.

The new website, which was announced Tuesday by state Attorney General Todd Rokita, is called “Eyes on Education” and includes complaints dating back to 2018. The website launched with material already posted, but the included school districts and state department of education didn’t know about it.

It lists 13 school districts around Indiana and the Indiana University School of Medicine with links to photos, screenshots, or presentation materials that the office describes as “potentially inappropriate.” In some cases, the portal also includes the addresses, phone numbers, and emails of people identified in the materials. Schools have characterized these materials as incomplete, outdated, or inaccurate.

Molly Williams, a representative for the Indiana Department of Education, said the agency was not made aware of the portal when it was under construction or when it launched.

The portal represents an escalation of a longstanding fight between Rokita and Indiana school districts over how lessons on race and gender are taught in schools. In establishing and promoting the website, Rokita has taken a similar approach to a controversial tip line started by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin for parents to report “divisive” teaching at their schools.

There appeared to be problems right off the bat.

A majority of the districts listed on the portal told Chalkbeat that they were not contacted by Rokita’s office and were unaware of the portal until Tuesday. A press release from the AG’s office was sent early Tuesday morning, but not publicly posted on the website until hours later.

Rokita’s office did not respond to Chalkbeat’s questions about how and when submitted complaints are posted publicly; what an investigation and verification by his office into the complaints will entail; whether the office would pursue legal action; and whether the persons identified in the material gave permission for his office to post their contact information online.

After at least one district complained about the portal, Rokita’s office told that district that it would remove inaccurate material.

The ACLU of Indiana said in a Tuesday post on the site formerly known as Twitter that the website is “an effort to intimidate teachers” from discussing issues of racial equity and LGBTQ topics.

“Classroom inclusivity benefits everyone. Classroom censorship does nothing but harm,” the group said.
 

What the website for ‘potentially inappropriate’ materials shows

The materials posted on the Indiana portal take the form of photos of online quizzes and presentations, flags and lessons in the classroom, and overviews of complaints about districts’ materials.

They cover a range of topics, from copies of school districts’ policies on supporting transgender students, to an email announcing a college presentation for Black students, to a list of sexually sensitive content identified in a school’s required reading.

Most of the materials posted online are undated and many others are from 2020 to 2021, when fury over the teaching of race in K-12 schools peaked in Indiana and nationwide and culminated in a bill that attempted to ban “divisive concepts” from K-12 classrooms.

Metadata for the website indicates the link for the portal, which ends in “education-liberty” was started in 2022.

Rokita, a Republican, has waded into this fight before. In 2021, he released his “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which took aim at social-emotional learning and critical race theory, terms commonly used as shorthand for broader lessons on gender, sexuality, and race. (A former member of Congress, Rokita served on the U.S. House education committee.)

In a press release, Rokita said his office would investigate complaints submitted to the portal.

“Our kids need to focus on fundamental educational building blocks, NOT ideology that divides kids from their parents and normal society,” Rokita said in the release, which describes the website as a transparency portal for parents and educators.

The portal does not include responses from the 13 school districts and one university. It’s not clear how or if Rokita’s office verified that the submissions are from the school districts that are named.

And while names are redacted in some of the materials, the portal makes other names public.

One entry reviewed by Chalkbeat appears to be a screenshot of an online form submitted to Rokita’s office with concerns about a school’s bathroom policy, with the complainant’s name, address, email address, and phone number visible.

Rokita’s office did not say whether this person or others gave permission for their information to be posted publicly.
 

What school districts listed on Rokita’s portal say

Chalkbeat contacted all 13 districts and one university listed on the portal — all 11 that responded objected to the information on the portal in some way.

Those 11 districts — Brownsburg, Carmel Clay, Center Grove, Clark-Pleasant, Franklin Community, Hamilton Southeastern, New Prairie, Noblesville, Penn-Harris-Madison, Mooresville, and Martinsville — also said they were not notified in advance about the portal or that they would be included. Several districts also stressed that families can bring their concerns and questions to school leaders, and at least two reached out to Rokita’s office to correct the information.

Some of the strongest words came from the superintendent of The Metropolitan School District of Martinsville, which said the documents on the portal do not reflect what the district teaches students.

“The posting suggests that the District endorses radical gender identity curriculum, which is reckless and inaccurate. Furthermore, the posting lacks context and clarity,” Superintendent Eric Bowlen said in a statement. “We invite Attorney General Rokita and any of our legislators to visit our schools to observe as our students learn from the standards required by the Indiana Department of Education.”

Carmel Clay Schools spokesperson Emily Bauer said that the district “was not previously notified regarding the website or asked to confirm the validity of submitted screenshots.”

Bauer also said several documents “originated from a now-defunct outside special interest group, and others appear to be online quizzes with no additional context provided.” Bauer added that it is “irresponsible to portray these screenshots as curriculum.”

Clark-Pleasant Schools said a hyperlink to a board policy document about transgender students “is outdated, retired, and no longer exists here at CPCSC!”

“We are disappointed in the release of this incorrect information and the fact that no one from the Attorney General’s office reached out to verify this information,” the district said.

The New Prairie United School Corporation said a plan listed on the portal is not in active use by the district, said Superintendent Paul White.

“The support plan was changed after community meetings in which we received input from parents, the community, and our school attorney,” White said in an email. “Parents are informed in ALL instances when a student comes forward to declare transgender status.”

The portal’s materials listed for Noblesville Schools are all old and not in use, said spokesperson Marnie Cooke. The site listed a screenshot of a presentation that the document claims was on white privilege, featuring a link that does not work.

The portal also listed screenshots of assignment details for an English course detailing the meaning of privilege, and a screenshot of an assignment on dominant and subordinated groups of people that the office labeled “CRT” (which is shorthand for critical race theory).

“For example, one document shows someone who was a volunteer community speaker in 2018. He presented content that was not appropriately vetted by us and we apologized to families at the time,” Cooke said in an email. “Another item is from an employee who is no longer with Noblesville Schools and the third example is also not in use.”

The Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation said the “minority scholarship” document listed for the district in the portal is from a one-day conference that the district did not sponsor, host, or plan, and was not a district minority scholarship as implied, according to the district.

Another document portraying an email sent to students about a representative from Goshen College available to speak to Black students was not a “Black Only College Fair” as it was labeled on the portal, Penn-Harris-Madison also countered.

And a third document labeled “diversity activities” was used in 2021 with students who were enrolled in a Preparing for College and Careers course and an Ivy Tech course, the district said. The Penn High School teacher obtained the diversity activities from the course framework provided by Ivy Tech faculty and made adaptations using professional judgment.

“After teaching this lesson and receiving parental/guardian feedback, Penn High School made changes to the courses while also maintaining state standards,” the district said. “The diversity activities shared have not been used at Penn High School since 2021.”
 

Indiana teachers ‘feeling under surveillance’

Analysts say the website could potentially have a chilling effect on classroom lessons and educators.

John Rogers, director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, said it’s important for teachers to feel comfortable enough to lead their students through historical lessons and discussions about different experiences within a multiracial democracy. But they’re less likely to do so under the threat of being reported to the state.

“It’s very hard to lean into those conversations when you are feeling like you might be attacked, publicly and in bad faith,” Rogers said.

Existing democratic processes allow parents and educators to share concerns with governing bodies that can then make decisions about what should be allowed in schools — building mutual respect and trust, he said.

But the website takes a “name and shame” approach, Rogers said, that ultimately foments conflict for the sake of conflict and heightens a sense of ill-will and mistrust in education.

Christopher Lubienski, director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, said it’s not clear how the investigations will work and whether they’ll be fair, whether complaints reflect real concerns, and what kind due process is available for individuals accused in the materials, he said.

Posting personal information also creates concerns about doxxing, a term that refers to publishing people’s personally identifiable information without their consent.

Many Republican-led states have adopted measures like the tip line or a parents’ bill of rights, he said, though parents already have the right to view and challenge curriculum, as well as attend school board meetings and run for office.

He said anecdotal evidence suggests the measures have likely negatively impacted teacher recruiting and retention.

“They don’t have the autonomy they expected. They’re feeling under surveillance,” he said. “They’ve likened it to McCarthyism.”

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