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Off the topic

A seminar on diversity for Department of Education employees has come under fire for containing politically charged remarks.

The seminar's presenter, Jane Elliot, allegedly referred to Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, both Republicans, as racists, and advised the estimated 150 employees in attendance not to support the Texas governor's presidential campaign.

The March 8 seminar, "How Children Become Prejudiced," was a voluntary event and part of an ongoing dialogue on race relations, said Education Department spokeswoman Erica Lepping. Ms. Elliot, a former teacher, gained national recognition in the late 1960s for a lesson she taught on discrimination in which she grouped her 3rd grade students according to eye color.

"We were completely taken aback by her decision to make comments off the topic," Ms. Lepping said.

On March 10, the department's chief of staff, Leslie Thornton, sent an e-mail message to employees acknowledging that inappropriate remarks were made, and saying that the department did not endorse such comments.

Ms. Lepping could not confirm Ms. Elliot's exact remarks, and there are no tapes of the event.

Meanwhile, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., who chairs the House education committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, demanded an explanation from the Education Department. His office received word of the seminar's content from a department employee who attended the event.

"It would disturb me greatly to learn that taxpayers are paying for your agency's employees to listen to hateful and politically charged rhetoric," Mr. Hoekstra wrote in the March 14 letter.

In a telephone interview, Ms. Elliot did not deny she made the remarks.

"Was [Mr. Hoekstra] there? Did he hear the presentation? I refuse to respond to any criticism based on one-and-a-half minutes out of a 90-minute speech," Ms. Elliot said.

—Joetta L. Sack [email protected]

Vol. 19, Issue 29, Page 28

Published in Print: March 29, 2000, as Federal File

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