BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU — Hawaii state Rep. Bob McDermott has asked the Alabama State Bar Disciplinary Commission to investigate the Southern Poverty Law Center’s top administrators.
This comes after the Alabama-based nonprofit paid Hawaii public school teachers $250 to attend a workshop and implement the center’s K-12 English and history “Teaching Tolerance” curriculum.
Hawaii law prevents an outside organization from paying public employees, including teachers, to influence the performance of their official duties, or provide extra compensation for official duties from outside sources, McDermott said, calling the stipend a “bribe.”
The complaint filed by the legislator specifically targets SPLC’s co-founder and chief trial counsel Morris Dees and the organization’s president, Jack Cohen.
“I want political agendas, right or left, out of the schools,” McDermott said.
SPLC declined to comment on the complaint.
However, Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance program, disputes McDermott’s accusations.
She said the organization works around the country within the guidelines of the various school districts, either by donating to the schools or paying a small stipend to teachers who help improve the pilot program. Costello said Hawaii approved teachers receiving the stipends.
Costello said SPLC has worked for 22 years to eliminate prejudice and bias, and its program in the schools includes everyone from all backgrounds and religions and help children feel “welcomed, valued and respected” so they have a better learning environment. She said children who feel rejected, unseen or invisible don’t perform as well in school.
“Every parent wants their child to feel safe and accepted at school. We want everyone to get along even if they do not share the same values,” Costello said.
McDermott argues the group’s program is biased against Christians and has no place in the school system.
The pilot program is still being revised, Costello said, and Hawaii teachers across the state are providing input into the final product. Some teachers have told the law center they believe more information on native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders should be included, and SPLC is working to incorporate that suggestion, she said.
This is the third time McDermott has taken aim at the Teaching Tolerance program.
He filed an ethics complaint against Department of Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi on Feb. 28 for allowing the teacher training to move forward, saying SPLC’s paid access to Hawaii classrooms is a violation of Hawaii law. He also wrote a cease and desist letter to Matayoshi on March 12.
The Department of Education hasn’t commented on the ethics complaint against its superintendent, only saying it’s under review.
McDermott is the same legislator challenging the Department of Education’s implementation of Pono Choices, a controversial sex-education program for children ages 11 to 13 in public middle schools. The program is under review by an appointed Board of Education working group.
Reach Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com