Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, appears by video during an Oct. 28 meeting of a special committee on mental health. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector from Kansas Legislature video)
TOPEKA — Kansas children who kill themselves typically die with a gun or by asphyxiation, according to an annual report on adolescent deaths in the state.
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The team of health professionals, law enforcement officers, educators and attorneys who examine each child death in Kansas point to a history of physical or sexual abuse, family discord, alcohol or drug use, isolation, and social stress from breakups or sexual orientation as common themes among youths who attempt or complete suicide.
U.S. history lessons are not a listed factor, despite a legislator’s concern for “a little white girl” who could be made to feel ashamed of her race in Kansas classrooms.
Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, appeared by video from a parking lot last month to ask lawmakers on a joint mental health committee to consider the effect critical race theory is having on schoolchildren. She plans to examine the topic in her own special committee on education later this month.
Williams connected critical race theory to the “feelings of shame, depression and anxiety” that have infiltrated Kansas schools.
“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 said.
The representative repeatedly distorted the definition and application of a college-level theory when addressing the mental health committee.
Critical race theory studies the way racial bias is embedded into the legal system. Kansas children aren’t being taught in schools that they are inherently racist because they are white, and such ideas aren’t a component of critical race theory.
Still, Williams claimed to have found examples, based on a Koch-funded lobbyist’s blog, of critical race theory’s influence in Kansas schools.
“If we go back to any race of people in any part of the world, you’re going to find things that you’re very proud of, and things that you would be very disturbed to know,” Williams said. “But to place that burden on a little white girl, compared to another person of another ethnic or racial background, is wrong. And she should not feel shame or guilt for something that she cannot control — one, her skin color; number two, the past that predated her.”
The Sept. 30 annual report from State Child Death Review Board examines 362 child deaths from 2019, and identifies 5- and 15-year trends. The Attorney General’s Office provides oversight of the board.
In 2019, 18 boys and 10 girls died as a result of suicide, including six children ages 14 and younger.
Girls are more likely to attempt suicide, most frequently by hanging, suffocation or drugs, the report said. Boys are more likely to complete a suicide attempt, and most commonly use a gun.
The report says 61% of the children who died from suicide in 2019 experienced recent "school problems" — academic, behavioral, suspensions, conflicts with peers, or truancy. The report says nothing of critical race theory or shame caused by race.
Additionally, 64% of the children had a significant argument or family conflict immediately before suicide; 43% had a history of alcohol or substance abuse; 39% had received mental health services; and 25% had been in state custody or had a child in state custody.
Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, a Lenexa Democrat, pointed to the report's findings in a tweet inspired by Williams' comments attributing feelings of shame and depression to critical race theory.
FACT CHECK—State Child Death Review Board 2021 Report:
📌Critical Race Theory NOT listed as risk factor for youth suicide
📌Gender Identity & Sexual Orientation are risk factors—let’s stop bullying trans kids #ksleg
📌Boys are dying at an alarming rate due to suicide with a gun pic.twitter.com/BgFqLfrX9f
— Jo Ella Hoye (@joellahoye) October 28, 2021
In an interview, Hoye said she was troubled by Williams' comments, "because we can't be making those types of statements without having information, facts, to back that up."
"To hear critical race theory brought up in a mental health interim committee seemed really off base and takes away from the real truth and the real issues and tragedies that we're seeing across the state," Hoye said.
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Mental health in schools
Public school officials who provided testimony to the mental health committee urged lawmakers not to cut funding for mental health services in schools.
Angie Salava, director of mental health services for Olathe public schools, said the district's 88 school counselors, 24 social workers, 39 psychologists and 10 clinically licensed therapists, among other personnel, are critical to addressing mental health needs exacerbated by the pandemic.
"When these services are provided in school, we remove many barriers to treatment, such as transportation, parents missing work, children losing lots of class time, mental health stigma and funding," Salava said.
Mark Schmidt, superintendent for Blue Valley public schools in Overland Park, said the school's psychologists, counselors and social workers annually support students and families through more than 275 instances of suicidal ideation.
The district attributes the mental health concerns to trauma from homelessness and foster care, economic uncertainty, isolation from quarantine, and focus on academic and athletic performance.
"We hear these mental health concerns are demonstrated in classroom behavior, suicidal ideation, poor school attendance, hospitalizations, and student self-reporting feelings of intense anxiety or depression," Schmidt said.
Ron Wilson, superintendent for Hays public schools, told lawmakers about a 6th-grader who in August 2020 was living in a new town, entering a new school and living with her mom for the first time in more than a year — all at the same time.
The girl experienced significant separation anxiety when she came to school each morning, Wilson said. She was frequently late and struggled with letting go of her mother.
The school counselor referred the girl to the school's mental health intervention team, which provided advanced services that the girl's mom, who worked a night shift, would not have been able to provide.
She now walks to school by herself and has made noteworthy academic progress. Her "bangs are out of her eyes," Wilson said. She makes eye contact and has a few friends.
"We must treat mental health like the emergency it really is and not ignore that it exists in kids," Wilson said.
The testimony from school officials is consistent with findings from the state report on child deaths. From 2015 to 2019, family discord and school failure were the most common personal crisis identified among youths who died by suicide.
Among other findings in the report: The 362 children who died in 2019 was the lowest total in 15 years; 203 of them were infants; 130 had involvement with child protective services; 30 died in motor vehicle crashes; there were 23 child homicides; and seven died from drowning.
Asking hard questions
The decades-old concept of critical race theory remained obscure until former President Donald Trump began tweeting about it last year.
Google Trends shows virtually no search traffic for critical race theory in Kansas before May of this year, with spikes of interest in June and leading up to the Nov. 2 elections. GOP-backed school board candidates thrived in the elections by denouncing a subject that isn't being taught, possibly foreshadowing next year's broader election cycle.
"It has been politicized, and I think it has been distorted," said Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat, during the meeting of the mental health committee.
Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican, said critical race theory may not be "formalized" in school curriculum, "but we see it in other ways with offices of diversity, equity and inclusion."
Williams provided four written examples, expressed through eight bullet points, of how she believes critical race theory has infiltrated Kansas schools.
A lobbyist's blog post accused the Shawnee Mission school district of using an equity training program based on the work of Gary Howard, and pointed to comments attributed to Howard about inequities in the education system. Based on undocumented claims in an anonymous YouTube video, the training program involves a game called "culture toss," in which participants give up elements of their identity to survive in an oppressive police state.
Former Hiawatha teacher Stuart Aller alleged the district's diversity and inclusion council placed blame for societal problems on white people, Williams said. The ex-teacher said staff training produced a culture where he frequently heard remarks from teachers about "white fragility" and privilege.
A parent in Olathe complained about a link on the district's website that leads to a lesson plan that includes the words, "For white children in particular, these stories offer a way of balancing the negative role that white people have played in maintaining a system of racism." Williams didn't provide a link or context, but that phrase appears in professional development materials produced by Learning for Justice. The phrase in question refers to the recommendation that educators incorporate stories about white anti-racists.
"These stories are crucial for all children, because learning about social activists provides a hopeful counterbalance to information about the many problems in our society," the guide says.
Williams pointed to links formerly on the Wichita Public Schools website's equity and diversity resources page. The page included links to the Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project by the New York Times, Black Lives Matter and the Zinn Education Project. The historian Howard Zinn was a Marxist, Williams said, and communists killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.
When speaking to the committee by video, Williams said second-graders are being asked to separate white settlers, Indians, Theodore Roosevelt, and the U.S. government into "good" and "bad" piles. She didn't say where this activity was taking place, or specify the purpose of the activity.
"How do you think that little girl is going to feel about herself?" Williams said. "She's not going to understand it. It's not in context, and she's going to feel shame."
Schools may be deploying good-intentioned ways to combat inequality, injustice and racism, Williams said.
"But the question is, what else is it doing?" she said. "Is it causing shame and anxiety and depression for our youth, and for our children, either directly or indirectly?"
Williams pointed to national statistics that show a 50% increase in attempted suicide by teen girls since 2009. Lawmakers "have to be real" and willing to "ask these hard questions," Williams said.
"Where is this coming from?" Williams said. "So I am just leaving you the question to investigate, find out what are our children reading? What are they being told? Are they told that values of kindness, values of forgiveness, values of love your neighbor as yourself are priority? Or are they being told that it is not the content of their character, but the color of their skin that determines their value? It's an important question. It's an important debate."
'We all sin'
Rep. Rui Xu, a Westwood Democrat, wanted to know if Williams' logic also applied to lessons about gender equality.
After all, he said, the country has a history of oppression based on gender.
"I can see how teaching women's suffrage might make any boy, regardless of race, feel shame," Xu said. "Is that correct?"
Williams disagreed. She said she has three biological children and a child adopted from China. She has three daughters and a son.
"My son should feel no shame that it took until the 1920s so that women could vote, and that women's suffrage could have happened a lot sooner," Williams said.
Teaching children about gender equality shouldn't make a boy feel guilty, Williams said.
"I believe that each of us inherently have good and bad within each of us," Williams said. "And we have the ability to do good and bad. And ultimately, you know, I think that's, you know, for me, that's what my face says. We all sin. And so I certainly wouldn't want to point my finger at one gender, at one race, and pretend that we're not all subject to the same laws. We are."
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