SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Following the signing of an executive order this week by Governor Kristi Noem to ban ‘divisive concepts’ in the classroom, educators and students are concerned for the future of classrooms and history education in South Dakota schools. The governor says she’s keeping political indoctrination out of schools but students in Sioux Falls say that isn’t something they’ve experienced.

Critical Race Theory (CRT), or what critics define as such, has been a hot topic in legislatures across the country over the past few months. In South Dakota, the legislature passed a bill, which has since been signed into law to ban the teaching of ‘divisive concepts’ in orientation and training in higher education. The bill does not pertain to curriculum. The executive order passed this week is a revival of House Bill 1337 that failed to advance through the legislative process in Pierre just one month ago.

“Political indoctrination has no place in our classrooms,” Noem said in a statement following the signing. “Our children will not be taught that they are racists or that they are victims, and they will not be compelled to feel responsible for the mistakes of their ancestors. We will guarantee that our students learn America’s true and honest history – that includes both our triumphs and our mistakes.”

Critical Race Theory is an academic theory coined in 1989 by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, which is typically reserved for graduate, legal studies. Two former University of South Dakota law school students who spoke with KELOLAND News said that neither of them was familiar with the theory nor were they taught it in their time at the Knudson School of Law.

While the term Critical Race Theory is used once in the order, the divisive concepts listed by the governor are not how academics and scholars define the theory. The American Bar Association states that CRT is a practice of analyzing the role that race and racism have played in society and legal fields, if any.

But the executive order signed by Noem defines the theory as teaching students ‘divisive concepts’ that one race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin is 1) superior than another, 2) should be discriminated against, 3) one’s moral character is determined by race, etc., 4) one’s virtue is inherently racist, subconsciously or not, 5) an individual is responsible for the actions of their race committed in the past, and 6) that traits such as work ethic were created by one race to oppress another.

Is CRT taught in K-12?

This week, KELOLAND News spoke with four high school students from Sioux Falls and Harrisburg about the executive order and their experience with history education in South Dakota. We asked them whether they had ever encountered CRT or any of the divisive concepts the governor banned.

“I definitely have not encountered Critical Race Theory in the classrooms, in any context, at any point in my public schooling,” Daniel Bethke said.

“I have not,” Antoinette Bita answered.

“No, we’ve never been taught that ever,” Sam Markley said.

Kira Waldhalm, a junior at Harrisburg High School, said that she had not encountered the theory or Noem’s concepts in the classroom either.

“We’ve definitely talked about how certain races have been disenfranchised throughout history and how that can lead to them being worse off than others,” Kira said.

From the Tulsa Massacre to Japanese internment camps, these high school students say the history of race in the United States of America should make you feel uncomfortable. In fact, students we spoke with said history education in South Dakota does not go far enough.

Sam Markley is a senior at Washington High School in Sioux Falls. He’s preparing to graduate this spring before he heads to USD to study history and eventually plans to apply to law school. While Markley says he has a basic understanding of CRT from his own personal research, he has never encountered it, or anything similar, in the Sioux Falls School District.

“We’re never taught that, like, this means America is bad or that America is wrong,” Markley said. “But to us it feels like America has certain standards and there have been times throughout our history where we haven’t lived up to those standards.” 

Antoinette Bita, a fellow Washington High School senior, echoed that statement, saying she never felt as if she was taught to degrade America when learning about the history of race in the country. For the soon-to-be Georgia State freshman, conversations on the history of race in high school is not enough.

“I feel like we don’t go as in depth as we should when it comes to topics like that,” Bita said.

It’s why she, and other students, formed the Black Student Union to provide students with a space to have conversations around Black history in America. She worries that Noem’s executive order could scare both teachers and students away from having any discussions of race in the classroom.

Lincoln High School senior Daniel Bethke is also concerned about the impact this order could have on the classroom.

“I’m just worried that we’re going to ignore things that we shouldn’t ignore and prevent the diffusion of knowledge that would be beneficial for everyone,” Bethke said.

During the 2022 legislative session, one Sioux Falls parent testified his child had encountered CRT at Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls. He provided lawmakers with an example of a privilege test that was given to his child, claiming it was a sign of race being brought into the classroom. Bethke said in his time at Lincoln, he was never directed to take any such test and nobody else he’s spoken with at the school has either.

Each of the students we spoke with had taken both high school level history courses as well as Advanced Placement (AP) classes. They all had taken, or were currently enrolled in, AP U.S. History (APUSH), which is a class for high school students to take collegiate level instruction and possibly earn college credits based off their test scores.

For Markley and Bethke, APUSH was the first time they had encountered many historical tragedies involving minorities in America. Markley said he and his classmates felt shocked learning about certain historical events. For him, he appreciated the opportunity to learn more about not just the good parts of American history, but the bad as well.

“We’ve talked about some serious things, and it’s been uncomfortable,” Markley said. “These are uncomfortable discussions but they’re serious discussions that need to happen.”

In Noem’s executive order, and the failed bill, the divisive concepts mention that no student should be made to feel guilt, shame, or discomfort due to their race or the actions of their ancestors. All four students said that they had never been made to feel that way by any teacher or student. Rather, the discomfort stemmed from the events themselves.

“I feel like, actually, it’s been quite the opposite,” Waldhalm said. “As we learn about, you know, these terrible things that have happened, specifically in this case to racial minorities, a lot of people begin to understand social issues more and why reparations for people like Native Americans are so important.”

While three of the four students are graduating this spring, they still worry about the impact this will have on K-12 classrooms in the state and are paying close attention to legislation and orders centering around education. Bethke’s concerns extend beyond the classroom and to the legislative process.

“For her to issue this executive order seems to, kind of, usurp the will of the people and their representatives,” Bethke said. “Because I haven’t really encountered things like what she has defined as disruptive or divisive, I’m kind of worried about she actually means when she talks about these sorts of behaviors and classroom activities.”

Markley said learning about race in America should not make a person feel as if they are inherently racist, but rather provide people with the opportunity to learn about their community members and how certain historical events have impacted them.

“I feel like we’re getting into a habit of associating any discussion of race to being this idea of Critical Race Theory,” he said. “I think that can do a lot of harm when we’re looking at history courses.”

Waldhalm still has one more year of high school left and she says she’s worried about what this will mean for classrooms and discussions of American history.

“I think it’s good to learn about our country’s past whether it’s good or bad and I don’t think any censorship of that would be beneficial for learning for students.”

The next steps for Noem’s executive order direct the Department of Education to review all materials, programs, content and standards for the divisive concepts listed and provide a report to the governor by July 1, 2022. The DOE will then have until October 1, 2022 to remove anything in violation of the executive order.

In the Indian Education Advisory Council meeting on Wednesday, Joe Moran with the Department of Education said that the department is still learning more about the next steps moving forward and how they will proceed.