KEARNEY, Neb. — Act with kindness and confront racism when it surfaces in schools or on the playing field.
That was the message Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt delivered to about 1,000 Nebraska school leaders on Wednesday.
Blomstedt said he’s “sick of” the racially discriminatory comments that have been reported at sporting events, in schools and in communities.
“I ask you to challenge derogatory comments about our students,” he told the conference of educators. “Challenge those. Don’t let those stand.”
He urged educators to live up to the social media hashtag #BeKind. He said educators have a basic moral imperative to provide equity — ensuring that every student, regardless of background or circumstances, has an opportunity for success.
He said educators have to be champions for equity and to be kind, which he called the essence of equity.
Blomstedt highlighted some dark chapters in Nebraska’s not so distant past: a Ku Klux Klan hood worn by Nebraskan Larry Trapp, who in the 1980s renounced his affiliation with the Klan after interactions with Lincoln Cantor Michael Weisser. There was also the indignity of Chief Standing Bear having to prove his humanity in court, a “whites only” telephone booth and Indian boarding school that he said “tried to strip people of their culture and identity.”
“So often we think those problems exist somewhere else, they exist in the Deep South or they exist somewhere in the midst of a place other than Nebraska,” he said.
He described how his grandparents started a school for his uncle Eldon Blomstedt who had Down syndrome, because in the 1960s there was no place to send him. His grandmother said he should be in school.
Eldon died of leukemia in April 1972, he said.
“I grew up in a time when ‘retard’ was a common term, and I was not probably even affected by it till I watched and paid attention to my own history and what that term meant,” he said. “We have other terms that can’t be tolerated in our schools, and we have to take that on.”
Blomstedt made the remarks during his opening speech at the annual Administrators’ Days conference in Kearney.
The conference draws superintendents, principals and school staff from across the state.
The conference is a kind of rally and cram session to learn about new laws, regulations and trends in education.
It is presented by the Nebraska Department of Education and the Nebraska Council of School Administrators.
While students and fans hurling insults is unfortunately not new, the problem got more attention last school year, when Jim Kasik, the athletic director at Schuyler Central High School, wrote a column on it.
Kasik wrote that parents and students at the majority Latino school have been targeted by opposing teams and fans with disparaging remarks, and even spit on.
Blomstedt noted similar reports of disparaging remarks directed at students in Lexington schools and others.
“I’m kind of sick of it, quite honestly,” he said.
He said education groups across the state are working on a “statement of principles” that they can embrace and that could spur concrete action and help bring about positive change.
The statement of principles says, in part, that educators must create a school and community culture that supports learning opportunities for all people and ensures that respect and courtesy are shown to all people.
Conference attendee Ben Hansen, an elementary principal in Cedar Bluffs, said he was happy to see the commissioner focus on the human side of education, and not just statistics.
“I’m sitting here thinking how can we incorporate more kindness into our school,” he said.