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Montana’s top prosecutor bans critical race theory programs

In this Jan. 4, 2021 photo, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen is sworn into office, inside the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Mont. Knudsen issued an opinion Thursday, May 27, 2021, labeling critical race theory and some antiracism programs taught in schools as "discriminatory" and said they violate federal and state law. The Republican Attorney General's decision bans the activities which are also used for employee training in the state.  (Thom Bridge)
By Iris Samuels Associated Press/Report for America

HELENA — Montana’s top prosecutor issued an opinion Thursday labeling critical race theory and some antiracism programs taught in schools as “discriminatory” and said they violate federal and state law.

Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s decision bans the activities — which are also used for employee training — in the state. It came after Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen requested earlier this month for Knudsen to weigh in on the issue.

Montana with the decision became the latest of several Republican - controlled states to decry critical race theory as an attempt to pit racial groups against each other and teach that certain groups are responsible for injustices of the past. Supporters of the theory say it is a way to look at how race and racism have shaped the nation.

Knudsen’s decision was slammed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents many government workers in the state, including school teachers and faculty at public universities.

The union’s president, Amanda Curtis, accused Knudsen and Arntzen of “working together to politicize school curriculum.”

ACLU of Montana executive director Caitlin Borgmann accused them of trying to “impose an alternate version of American history — one that erases the legacy of discrimination and lived experiences of Black and Brown people.”

“Our country needs to acknowledge its history of systemic racism and reckon with the present-day impacts of racial discrimination — this includes being able to teach and talk about these concepts in our schools,” Borgmann said in a statement.

Knudsen’s binding opinion states that certain activities that fall under the umbrella of critical race theory teaching violate the U.S. and state constitutions.

They include grading students differently based on race; forcing people to admit privilege or reflect on their racial identities; assigning fault, blame or bias to a race; and offering training or assignments that force students or employees to support concepts such as racial privilege.

Schools and government and public workplaces could lose state funding and could be liable for damages from lawsuits if they offer critical race theory training or activities, Knudsen’s office said in a statement.

“Committing racial discrimination in the name of ending racial discrimination is both illogical and illegal,” Knudsen said in a statement. “Montana law does not tolerate schools, other government entities, or employers implementing CRT and antiracist programming in a way that treats individuals differently on the basis of race or that creates a racially hostile environment.”

The attorney general’s office encouraged students and parents who believe they experience illegal discrimination under critical race theory programming to sue their schools directly or file complains with the U.S. Department of Education.

Arntzen welcomed the decision, saying it will stop “outside philosophies” from affecting public education in the state.

“I am completely supportive of students learning multiple viewpoints of our history to encourage critical thinking,” she said in a statement. But she said critical race theory “distorts our shared history and too often is used to demean and belittle students based on the color of their skin through segregation, stereotyping, and scapegoating.”

Travis McAdams, a program director with the Montana Human Rights Network, said the opinion “creates unnecessary confusion around racism and how it impacts people in Montana.”

Knudsen and Arntzen “are implying that discussions about real-life examples of discrimination, bias, and privilege are somehow racist, and that is completely false,” McAdams said.