INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita is advising schools to not display signs or materials promoting Black Lives Matter.
Rokita's guidance is that Black Lives Matter should be treated as a political organization. He said that promoting or displaying "politically based materials" could create liability for the schools and could violate the First Amendment if the school then didn't allow displays for other political organizations.
Rokita said educational leaders need to “ensure the focus remains on the mission of our schools — educating our children."
Rokita was asked to issue an advisory opinion by two state legislators — Sen. John Crane, R-Brownsburg, and Rep. Michelle Davis, R-Whiteland.
"I appreciate the Attorney General issuing this opinion regarding the Black Lives Matter movement,” Crane said. “At a time when too much of a student's educational experience has been politicized, this opinion provides needed clarity about the underpinnings of the BLM movement, as well as reinforcing the importance of fair-minded presentations of all subject matter in our school classrooms. Our children in Indiana deserve a high-quality education that inspires their critical thinking in the pursuit of a society that truly dignifies all people."
You can read Rokita's 7-page advisory opinion here.
In February, then Hamilton Southeastern Schools Superintendent Dr. Allen Bourff clarified a letter he put out after backlash from similar guidance he gave teachers. HSE's school board president ended up apologizing to parents for it.
Bourff told faculty to treat Black Lives Matter as a political issue and not a social issue.
"I have heard from a number of parents who are concerned that we are advancing the cause of Black Lives Matter, a political movement within the country," wrote Dr. Allen Bourff. "They contend that their children are being indoctrinated rather than taught ... and that this effort has been a distraction from the academic purpose of school."
Bourff went on to say "there is disagreement as to whether Black Lives Matter is a social issue or political issue" and "I am requesting that if you work with the topic, treat it as a political issue, and as you do with other political issues, teach it without advancing it or promoting your personal views."
The Racial Equity Community Network issued a statement at the time in response to the letter:
"We are disheartened by the statement released by Hamilton Southeastern Schools' administration that seems to discourage HSE teachers and employees from discussing or supporting Black Lives Matter in the classroom. The Black Lives Matter movement is not an extremist political group, as many white residents asserted in recent complaints to the school board and administration. The BLM movement isn't about politics; it's about humanity."
Bourff issued a follow-up letter to faculty that read:
The intent of yesterday's letter to the faculty was designed to provide instructional strategies to discuss and teach Black Lives Matter, one of the most significant issues of our time. I understand that the impact was hurtful, and for that I apologize.
I am not requesting that teachers abandon their passion for a social cause, that social issues not be discussed, or that students not be allowed to express themselves. On the contrary, I am requesting that we affirm publicly through our instructional practices that Black Lives Matter, that all humans have value, and that we stand in solidarity against injustice, racism, and violence, at all times.
Bourff retired from the district at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.
The issue has come up at schools around Indiana, in other states and even with virtual schooling during the pandemic.
Taylor Lifka, an advanced English teacher at Roma High School in Texas, displayed a collage of posters, just like the ones in her real classroom: One read “Black Lives Matter,” another included a rainbow flag and a third had a phrase written in Spanish that highlights solidarity between Black and Brown people.
A school official told her to take down the signs. She refused. A few hours later, she was placed on paid leave.
Roma school officials said that several parents and community members filed complaints to the district about the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ posters.
The teacher was later allowed to return to teaching as long as the posters did “not come to overly disrupt or detract from the educational process or the learning environment.”
In September, an Oregon school board voted to ban teachers from displaying Pride flags, Black Lives Matter symbols or other displays in their classrooms that are considered “political, quasi-political or controversial.”