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Shawn Vestal: The tale of critical-race theory and the bullied Boise State student falls apart

Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Vestal (DAN PELLE)

This year’s assault on education in the Idaho Legislature was sparked by a claim that a white student at Boise State University had been demeaned and “forced to apologize for being white.”

This allegation came from an unidentified, non-student “community leader” who claimed to have seen a video of the incident on a friend’s phone. Among the other claims were that the student had been taunted and called stupid.

This claim – accepted at face value from conservatives and peddled hard by critical-race-theory grifters in Idaho political circles – became an article of faith in the Legislature, which cut BSU’s budget, along with other Idaho colleges, in retribution.

Much of this baseless outrage was driven by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the libertarian, anti-government lobbying organization that drags a significant number of Idaho lawmakers around on a leash.

IFF built a scandalous narrative on the sandy foundation of this claim, assailing BSU – and before long, all Idaho schools – as leftist, social justice indoctrination factories. When BSU capitulated to critics, halted the course in question and hired investigators to check it out, IFF remained unsatisfied.

“Why should we trust the administrators to conduct an ‘in depth review’ of their own university?” wrote the group’s education “researcher,” Anna Hill. “We don’t allow criminals to investigate themselves.”

If you’re caught up on the way that the CRT freakout is operating – as a catch-all culture-war tagline and racist dog-whistle for folks who likely couldn’t define it – you’ll recognize this pattern: an anonymous tale emerges of a white student being “bullied” in a classroom discussion on racism, and conservative lawmakers respond by trying to stomp on academic freedom, hush up bothersome talk about racism, cancel diversity as an educational value and enforce a distorted history of a glorious white America.

In Idaho and throughout the national echo chamber, the anonymous, uncorroborated tale of the taunted BSU student was used to drive that engine.

And it was nonsense.

Boise State hired the prominent Idaho law firm Hawley Troxell to investigate, and it released its findings Monday: “(W)e were unable to substantiate the alleged instance of a student being mistreated in a UF 200 course as described by the complainant.”

The firm interviewed 30 students who took the course, University Foundations, as well as instructors and others. They reached out repeatedly to offer any student who had taken that course a chance to provide information, either anonymously or using their name. They contacted the original complainant, who would not, or could not, provide corroboration.

No one reported being forced to apologize for their race or being taunted or insulted, and no one reported seeing anything like the incidents that drove the Legislature crazy.

It’s almost as if the whole thing were a political con.

Frankly, the initial details were not to be believed: someone who wasn’t a student – some indications are that it was a lawmaker – complained to BSU in March that he’d seen a video “in which a Caucasian student was singled out in a class at BSU by an instructor and was mistreated and demeaned,” the investigation said.

The class discussion was allegedly focused on structural inequality, economics and white privilege. This student was supposedly forced to apologize in front of the whole class for being white or for their white privilege, “and was then subjected to taunts, name-calling and other verbal attacks from other students. It was alleged that the word ‘stupid’ was used during the incident and that the student left the class in tears.”

These highly dubious claims, swallowed whole by legislators, helped fuel a CRT backlash in the Legislature that did real damage to Idaho’s school system, top to bottom. By the end of the session, lawmakers had cut higher ed budgets across the state and refused to accept millions in badly needed preschool funding because of the terror that white children would be indoctrinated with anti-white lessons.

They also passed a bill outlawing certain forms of anti-racism training, including a provision prohibiting educators from forcing students to adopt or affirm the idea that they are responsible for the historical actions of their racial group. Rep. Heather Scott, ringleading that particular idiocy on the House floor, shared the concern that reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” was sending children an anti-white message.

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is not merely a question of individual animus, but is embedded in political and legal systems and is expressed through seemingly race-blind policies and practices. It’s hard to imagine how someone truly interested in understanding American history would resist even hearing these ideas. It’s hard to imagine how anyone with any understanding of American history could dismiss it out of hand. Ironically, Washington’s Legislature just added teaching CRT as a requirement for teacher training.

The Hawley Troxell investigators reached out to every student in the course over the past two terms, several of the faculty members who teach it, and other university officials – and received no confirmation of the complaint. They heard from students who expressed concerns about their professors’ political leanings, and students who praised their professors – but no confirmation of the tale of the taunted white student.

Another incident came up, however, confirmed by eight students, in which a student called her professor’s logic “stupid” during a section on universal health care in a Zoom course, and who was criticized by other students for this before leaving in tears. The student told investigators that at no point had she felt disrespected by the professor.

The investigators say that there were some similarities between that incident and the complaint, but also many differences – including the crucial elements of the discussion of racism and the forced apology.

“That being said, we did not receive reports of any other incidents that came anywhere near matching the alleged incident as it was described by the Complainant,” the investigation said.

Also, crucially, investigators interviewed the complainant himself – the anonymous “community leader.” This man told investigators that he was concerned about BSU indoctrinating students and claimed he knew of “multiple inappropriate interactions.”

However, he would not identify any of the students involved in these supposed interactions, nor describe in detail what he has seen or heard from students “other than that it was ‘really inappropriate,’ ” the investigation says.

He also said he had no access to the video that he claimed to have seen showing the incidents in his complaints, and “declined to provide any information on how it could be obtained.”

There was no there there. Sadly, that didn’t matter to the grifters who used the ridiculous tale to achieve their pre-existing goal of undermining Idaho schools. Anyone with a concern about the quality of education in Idaho, or anywhere else where the CRT freakout has taken hold, should heed the words of Melissa Wintrow, a BSU instructor and Democratic state senator from Boise.

“Our state is in trouble,” she told the Idaho Statesman, “if we don’t start electing people that actually use their brains and have more reason.”

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