In what may be a preview of the statehouse debate to come, a key Kansas lawmaker on Thursday linked critical race theory to student depression and suicide.
Republican state Rep. Kristey Williams, chair of the K-12 Budget Committee, started making the case for addressing critical race theory in testimony to a special committee examining mental health reform.
Williams said Thursday that critical race theory is leading children to internalize shame, guilt and angst with the premise that the color of their skin matters more than the content of their character.
“If you are confronted with the fact that you, because of the color of your skin, are racist and you are the problem, then that can manifest shame, especially in adolescents and women,” Williams told the committee.
“We have to be real and be willing to take on these tough issues and asking hard questions: Where are kids getting these feelings?” she said.
“Is inviting shame and depression filtering into our schools and, if so, is CRT healthy for our children or does it cause further harm than good?” she said.
Critical race theory, developed by legal scholars more than 40 years ago, suggests that racism is more than just an individual bias but is rooted in policies for criminal justice, health care and housing, among other things.
Lawmakers advocating for limits on critical race theory nationally say it’s being taught in a way that fosters divisions among students, although school districts are rebutting the idea that it’s part of their curriculum.
Last July, the Kansas State Board of Education issued a statement that said critical race theory is wrongly confused with educational equity and is not part of the state’s academic standards.
While no legislation has been introduced, at least four bills are expected to be filed next session addressing critical race theory.
Democratic state Sen. Tom Hawk of Manhattan noted that critical race theory has evolved into a dominating political issue in recent months, adding that he thinks the issue has been widely distorted.
He said didn’t believe critical race theory was taught in Kansas schools and suggested there could be other issues that contribute to a student’s emotional stability, whether it’s home life, social media or their peers.
“I don’t believe CRT is being taught in our schools, and I don’t believe that it’s a huge problem,” Hawk said.
Hawk said he believes diversity needs to be taught in schools because the country, and the world at large, have a history of racism.
“It’s a piece that I think we’re all grappling with,” Hawk said. “What’s the right way for us to deal with that, and I don’t think we’ve found an answer out to that.
“I do believe that we need to teach kids kindness, respect and honesty. Every good teacher I’ve ever seen establishes that as ground rules of their class,” he said.
At one point, Hawk asked Williams whether she thought diversity should be taught in the classroom.
Williams agreed that diversity should be taught but added that school administrators should be mindful of test scores.
“Schools need to focus on making sure our kids are prepared for everything that comes next, which is their career and college,” she said.
“Yes, diversity, but we also need to be doing the basics,” she said.
Republican state Rep. Brenda Landwehr, chair of the committee, agreed that critical race theory is rooted in higher education.
However, she said critical race theory has taken on the form of diversion, equity and inclusion in Kansas public schools.
“I don’t think you’ll see critical race theory formalized in curriculum in classrooms,” said Republican state Sen. Renee Erickson of Wichita.
“But we see it in other ways with offices of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Erickson said.
Williams said students are subtly being taught in a way that’s not healthy for children.
“I think we could step away from the term critical race theory or DEI or diversity and equity and just look at the content,” Williams said.
“Just look at what’s being asked of our kids,” she said.