Monday, May 31, 2021

Why Conservatives Want to Cancel the 1619 Project: Why Anti-CRT Bills Matter to Higher Education

The fight over Texas' HB 3979 bill that I've addressed in this blog over the past few weeks is currently a K-12 issue. That said, higher education should care deeply about this as it will soon migrate to higher education. This is already happening in Idaho [read: Idaho moves to ban critical race theory instruction in all public schools, including universities], as well as in the case of award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones' who was denied tenure by the University of North Carolina Board of Regents. 

According to Adam Serwer at The Atlantic, this took place because of her viewpoints, most notably, her work on the "1619 Project." This is clearly a blow to Academic Freedom that exists to create a space in universities to be independent thinkers, scholars, and critics, a feature of liberal democracies that like a free press, help society to be informed and self-correcting.

The UNC Board of Regents disregarded this, as well as her meritoriousness.  Merit always counts in such decisions, however, Hannah-Jones' Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur genius grant weren't sufficient because key people in power do not want to address our country's deep racial divides—even if doing so promotes domestic tranquility and a virtuous society. 

They subscribe instead to the unsupportable myth that history plays no role in today's unequal outcomes, thusly necessitating a suppression of critical readings of history which is what the fight over HB 3979 is about, as Serwer thankfully also mentions below. The irony here is an inescapable contradiction that if inequality were solely an artifact of one's individual effort and ability, then why fear the truth of history?

Just as we know that the 50s gave rise to the 60s [see: "It Was The Stultifying 1950s That Provoked The 1960s Rebellions], Serwer's conclusion that moves like these are what set the stage "for the next awakening" is historically on point. And for that, we should be hopeful, grasping in a fresh way, I trust, the power of history, historical memory, and critically consciousness teachers and professors.

-Angela Valenzuela

Why Conservatives Want to Cancel the 1619 Project

Objections to the appointment of Nikole Hannah-Jones to an academic chair are the latest instance of conservatives using the state to suppress ideas they consider dangerous.

Legislative Update: How public ed fared in the session ending today


Here is a helpful session update. Thanks to the AFT for its many years of advocacy.  There are a number of positive highlights, including "public education maintained the full funding from last session’s school finance bill, HB 3. Legislators also dealt some serious blows to charter-school expansion." A virtual schooling bill also died when democrats walked out yesterday evening. Helpful detail, as well, on HB 3979.

Read on.

-Angela Valenzuela

Legislative Update: How public ed fared in the session ending today

Walkout by Democratic reps kills voter suppression bill, but governor guarantees a revisit in special session 

Fighting an expansive voter suppression bill to the last minute, Democratic House members staged a walkout late Sunday evening, breaking the quorum needed for a vote on SB 7 before a fatal deadline. However, Gov. Greg Abbott said shortly after that he would include the bill in a special session in the fall. SB 7 would have made it easier for judges to overturn elections in Texas, in addition to creating new limitations on early voting hours, adding voting-by-mail restrictions, and banning drive-thru voting.

Texas AFT opposed this bill, which would have made Texas one of the most restrictive states for voting access in the nation. In the debate on the bill’s conference committee report Sunday, Democrats objected that the bill and its restrictions on voting had expanded with legislation never heard in committees or on the floors of each chamber. The new proposals and rushed debate by Republicans spurred the walkout—a rarity at the Texas Capitol, with the last one occurring in 2003. 

Legislators already were set to return to the Capitol in late September or early October for a special session on redistricting, which was delayed from consideration this session by late data from the 2020 census count. The redistricting will create new maps for state and congressional seats. Beyond adding the SB 7 legislation, the governor has the sole authority to include additional items for consideration in the special session. The governor also has indicated decisions about the state portion of federal pandemic relief funds would come during the special session.

In a rough session, public education funding was a bright spot

As the Legislature gavels out of session today, we report that public education maintained the full funding from last session’s school finance bill, HB 3. Legislators also dealt some serious blows to charter-school expansion. The conservative Legislature, however, did push through, permitless handgun carryadded restrictions on abortions, and passed a bill intent on fueling culture wars in our local school districts. (See HB 3979 below.) 

The state budget passed last week after both chambers approved the conference committee report. The budget does still include the provision protecting educator salary increases from HB 3 in 2019, and it maintains the increased level of public education funding from that law. Another addition is a provision detailing expenditures to the Teacher Incentive Allotment, a program Texas AFT has been critical of in the past because of its reliance on test scores to rank and compensate teachers.

Previously, the Senate passed SB 29 (Charles Perry, R-Lubbock), which would discriminate against transgender students by forcing them to “compete in sports associated with their biological sex as determined at or near birth.” The bill, which Texas AFT opposed, died last week after missing a deadline for House passage.

Texas AFT will have a complete wrap-up of bills after they receive final approval with the governor’s signature, acceptance, or rejection with a veto by the final deadline of June 20.

Problematic virtual school bill falls victim to walkout

HB 1468 (Keith Bell, R-Forney) would have allowed public school districts to create Local Remote Learning Programs (virtual schools). While poised to pass, this bill became collateral damage when the House Democrats broke quorum Sunday night. The bill was concerning because it would have expanded virtual learning to grades Kindergarten to second and opened the door wider for more virtual students overall through grade 12; virtual education has not shown efficacy for most students, particularly younger children.

State takeover bill changes dramatically before final passage

SB 1365 (Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston) originally was intended to increase the authority of the commissioner of education when imposing sanctions and to make his decisions “final and unappealable.” The final legislation as it heads to the governor, however, is quite different and includes several provisions heavily lobbied by school districts. Though Texas AFT cannot support what is being touted as a compromise bill, our members helped it become a vastly different piece of legislation.

As an initial matter, Texas AFT member activism raised the profile of this bill, versions of which had to be sent back to committee twice because of procedural errors called by Rep. Dr. Alma Allen (D-Houston). Even after a compromise among districts and the bill’s House sponsors, Texas AFT continued to fight for improvements and against the bill’s harmful provisions.

After the committee substitute of SB 1365 passed the House Public Education Committee, several school administrative groups compromised with committee members on a floor substitute, which was led by former House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, rather than current Chairman Harold Dutton. 

The compromise, which included the Texas Association of School Administrators and the Texas Association of School Boards, created a due process structure, removing the final and unappealable language and limited confidentiality of witnesses. While Texas AFT was not party to the compromise, lawmakers had become aware of the language through Texas AFT’s pointed campaigns. Other issues addressed in the compromise language:

  • Only accountability system grades A through C will be given for 2021-2022, with the other campuses not rated. A provision was added that if a campus previously failing for multiple years (such as Houston ISD’s Wheatley) receives a C, the improvement would halt TEA interventions. 
  • While we strongly disagree with the addition in law of D ratings leading to state intervention, the bill amended the provisions allowing a D to trigger accountability sanctions to be less harsh than current commissioner practice. 
  • SB 1365 establishes that a D performance rating rather than just an F shall be considered among the criteria the commissioner considers with a renewal of a charter for an open-enrollment charter. So, charter schools with three D ratings in five years now face tougher oversight.

Despite this agreement from administrators and intense pressure to halt our opposition, Texas AFT continued to express grave concerns, successfully fighting for additional improvements, including removing a provision that allowed the commissioner authority to take actions not grounded in law and limiting the reduction of interlocutory appeals. 

All that being said, the bill’s fatal flaw remains: giving more weight to faulty current law that allows a TEA takeover of an entire district because of just one campus not meeting accountability standards.  While we worry about the consequences of this provision, House sponsor Huberty stated on the House floor that this bill would not interfere in the ongoing Houston ISD case. (Watch the video here.)

While Texas AFT will monitor the impacts of this legislation, had it not been for the thousands of letters, phone calls, and tweets from our members and allies, the result would have much been much worse. It’s time to build on this activism to work to dismantle our punitive accountability system in the 88th Legislative Session.

Charter schools faced obstacles for their rapid-expansion agenda

Texas AFT led the fight against legislation that would fuel charter-school expansion, including opposition to SB 487 (Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola). The measure was a charter-school expansion bill that claimed to simply grant the same zoning exemptions to charter schools as those received by real public schools. However, it failed to address the lack of public notice and opportunity for public input from elected officials and the public in charter school expansion. The bill was killed on the House floor last week by a point of order, and our members speaking out against its companion (SB 1348) also helped stop that bill from moving forward. 

Limits on STAAR tests required for graduation passes

HB  999 (Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio) acknowledges the challenges of assessing high school students during the pandemic. The bill allows an Individual Graduation Committee to determine that a student is qualified to graduate without considering performance on any end-of-course STAAR exams for the 2020-2021 school year and allows the commissioner of education to extend the exemption by rule until 2022. This bill has been sent to the governor.

School finance ‘clean-up’ bill includes raise protection language, delay on reading academies

HB 1525 (Dan Huberty, R-Houston) was intended to clean up language in last session’s school finance bill, HB 3, but because it addressed so many issues in public education, it became a vehicle to add provisions from several other bills that didn’t advance in the session. 

Of the provisions that affect teachers the most, we appreciate language requiring districts to maintain any teacher salary increases resulting from HB 3 so long as their funding didn’t decrease. Another good provision in the final bill was delaying the required completion of reading academies professional development until the 2022-2023 school year. We’ve heard from teachers that this 60-hour course is confusing, often consumes much more time than is stated in instructional hours, and that teachers are being required to take coursework with no pay or low compensation. The conference committee report was approved on a vote of 31-0 in the Senate and in the House by a vote of 129-3. It now heads to the governor. 

‘Controversial topics’ bill passes after contentious debate and rare procedural move

This harmful bill, HB 3979, would limit the ability of teachers to discuss controversial subjects and address race issues. It appeared that Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) had delivered a critical blow for the bill’s passage on Friday after calling a successful point of order that amendments added in the Senate were not germane. However, in a rarely used procedural move, the Senate made a motion to accept the original version of the House bill as it was sent to the Senate. The state Senate was intent on keeping this divisive and oppressive bill alive at all costs. 

HB 3979 in its original form was presented as a civics bill that required the teaching of several writings foundational to the birth of the United States. But House Democrats recognized that these requirements were just window dressing on the bill’s intent to stifle discussion of racial injustice; House members then added a slew of amendments of their own requiring instruction for writings on civil rights, slavery, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and the labor movement. With the Senate’s action to save the bill, those amendments remain. Now it will be up to the State Board of Education to figure out how these topics will fit into the state curriculum. 

The bill still prohibits schools from offering course credit for a wide range of activities for “participation in any internship, practicum, or similar activity involving social or public policy advocacy.” The broad language means students couldn’t even get extra credit for volunteering at any organization that promotes public policy, whether it be a dog shelter or their state legislator’s office.

While the bill faced contentious debate over required curriculum, the true intent of it’s author—Rep. Steve Toth, Republican of the Woodlands—was to serve up a wedge issue for future legislative and school board races around the Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project, which the bill bans from being taught in schools. While the Critical Race theory mainly explores the intersection of the law and race, and the 1619 Project essays highlight little-known issues around slavery, they nonetheless have become a target for conservative activists around the country.  

We thank the thousands of Texas AFT members who voiced their opposition to this bill. It now heads to the governor. And the fight continues. 

Moves to give retirees a COLA or 13th check fall short, but legislators signal possible discussion in the fall.

Rep. Rafael Anchía of Dallas inquires about retiree pension benefit increases. Watch the video here.

Texas AFT supported several bills seeking a cost-of-living-increase (COLA) for TRS retiree pensions, but none made the cut. It was clear that while the TRS fund was actuarially sound and eligible for an increase, and most legislators support the concept, the prevailing mantra for the top leadership at the Capitol was: “Spend no new money.”

In an exchange between the state budget author, Rep. Greg Bonnen, and Rep. Rafael Anchía, Bonnen noted that while he would prefer to address a COLA in the 2023 session, funding for a 13th check could be a possibility in the fall special session. (See the video here.)

Broadband bill passes, signals investment in high-speed internet for areas without coverage

A top priority for state leadership and public education advocates—expanding broadband service to rural areas and neighborhoods lacking adequate access—passed both chambers and heads to the governor. The bill will provide grants and incentives to internet service providers to expand. Texas AFT supported this bill, which became even more important after seeing the impacts missing technology can have on remote work in a pandemic   

Bill changing state-employee pensions is a bad sign for all public employees

SB 321 (Joan Huffman, R-Houston) changes retirement rules for new public employees under the Employees Retirement System of Texas. This bill scraps reliable, classic, defined benefit pension plans for a riskier “cash balance” plan for new employees, a less reliable retirement benefit. While the bill does not involve Teacher Retirement System pensions, it shows that our defined-benefit pensions for public employees are still under attack. The Senate receded its proposed amendments and passed the House version of SB 321 just before the deadline. The bill now goes to the governor.

Sweeping Texas Voting Bill Dies After House Democrats Walk Out Of Final Vote

Great news to learn this morning that SB 7 died last night in the Texas State Legislature, a bill that would make voting harder and scarier. It'll come back up during special session and as you can read for yourself below, litigation that is costly to taxpayers is also imminent

For now, we can breathe easily. Congrats to House Democrats for this show of unity on something so precious as the right to vote in a state that already makes it difficult to do so.

-Angela Valenzuela



Sweeping Texas Voting Bill Dies After House Democrats Walk Out Of Final Vote

Without enough Texas House members present for a final vote, a GOP-backed election bill failed to pass before a deadline Sunday night.

By Ashley LopezMay 31, 2021 8:51 am

Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News

Without enough Texas House members present for a final vote, a GOP-backed election bill failed to pass before a deadline Sunday night.

Throughout the night, Democrats claimed new provisions in Senate Bill 7 were written behind closed doors and the bill was being rushed to passage without public input on key measures.

“The voices of Texans were not heard in this debate,” said state Rep. John Bucy, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Austin, Cedar Park and Leander.

Gov. Greg Abbott said it was “deeply disappointing and concerning for Texans” that the bill would not make it to his desk during this legislative session.

“Ensuring the integrity of our elections and reforming a broken bail system remain emergencies in Texas,” he said. “They will be added to the special session agenda. Legislators will be expected to have worked out the details when they arrive at the Capitol for the special session.”

The final version of SB 7 went through significant changes ahead of the final steps of approval in the Texas House and Texas Senate. Those changes were made by Republicans, Democrats say, during private committee negotiations.

If signed into law, SB 7 would have added new restrictions throughout the Texas election code — including rules around mail-in ballots, voter registration, poll watchers, voting hours and curbside voting, among other things.

State Rep. Travis Clardy, a Republican from Nacogdoches who spoke on behalf of the bill, said members “worked hard to come up with language that would resolve substantive differences” between the Texas House and Senate versions of the bill.

“This bill makes it easier for Texas to vote,” he said, “but for those determined to break the law, make it harder to cheat.”

The bill — which was opposed by various corporations, as well as voting rights groups — also would have added new restrictions to the state’s already limited vote-by-mail program. It required voters to add identification information to their ballot — and it also required disabled voters to identify what kind of condition they have in order to vote by mail. It also changed the standard of who is eligible for a mail-in ballot under the disability category.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat from Grand Prairie, called changes to the vote-by-mail process “another intimidation tactic.”

The legislation also took aim at efforts — particularly among local election officials in Houston — to make voting safer during the pandemic. SB 7 outlawed 24-hour voting centers and drive-thru voting, which were disproportionately used by voters of color during the 2020 election. The bill also banned voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays, which voting rights groups warn would affect “Souls to the Polls” campaigns led by Black churches.

James Slattery, a senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, told KUT the final version of the bill would have made voting harder in a state that is already the hardest to vote in.

“But it will also make voting scarier,” he said, “because there are a number of new crimes being created in this law that target both voters and election officials with serious felony offenses.”

SB 7 created state jail felonies for election officials who hand out vote-by-mail applications to someone who hasn’t requested one. It also allowed partisan poll watchers to sue election workers and local governments if they are prevented from doing their “duties” as poll watchers.

One of the last-minute changes to the bill, which were not heard or debated in either chamber, included a provision that allows an election judge to overturn an election if they suspect there is voter fraud without investigating ballots in question and proving this alleged voter fraud.

Rep. Bucy said this meant election workers would no longer have to prove voter fraud to throw out an election result.

“We all have political enemies,” he said. “They could use this to overthrow the voice of the people, to overthrow the voice of Texans.”

State Rep. Julie Johnson, a Democrat from Farmers Branch, said lawmakers were skirting their own rules in an effort to make it harder for Texans to vote.

“Make no mistake, the State of Texas will go to court again for this bill,” Johnson said. “We will waste millions of taxpayer dollars again defending this awful piece of legislation that seeks to disenfranchise so many Texas voters.”

Why Do Republicans Scare Voters with Absurd Claims about “Radical Socialism”?

This piece by Dr. Diane Ravitch should lay to rest (even if it doesn't) the shrill screams by so many on the right that we are becoming a socialist country. 

As put forward by Dean Baker in his May 8, 2021 piece, what President Biden is doing today is no different from bipartisan legislation that resulted in the nation's highway system years ago by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, or by advocates years earlier, for universal access to education. Universal access to broadband Internet that Biden seeks is no different from universal access to phones. The American middle class would not exist were it not for these investments by the U.S. government.

Instead, Biden is investing in our future so that we can live in a healthy, vibrant democracy and economy. 

-Angela Valenzuela

Why Do Republicans Scare Voters with Absurd Claims about “Radical Socialism”?

by dianeravitch
 May 31, 2021

Republicans today rant about President Biden’s “socialist agenda,” trying to scare ignorant people into fear of a humane government. None of the Trumpers I know are willing to give up their Social Security or Medicare, both of which are forms of government socialism.

Max Boot, who was previously a conservative columnist for the Washington Post, explains in this column that President Biden is trying to catch up with the policies of other modern democracies that provide for such things as health care and education. Republicans prefer a society that is deeply inequitable, where people living in poverty are left to fend for themselves with minimal and inadequate basic human services. 

Boot writes:

Republicans accuse President Biden of pursuing a radical agenda that will turn the United States into a failed socialist state. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), for example, tweeted a link to a 1974 article about day care in the Soviet Union and wrote ominously: “You know who else liked universal day care.”

It’s true that Biden is proposing a considerable amount of new spending that could reignite inflation: He wants $2.3 trillion for infrastructure and $1.8 trillion for child care, family leave and education. That’s on top of the $1.9 trillion in stimulus spending that was already passed. But those investments won’t turn us into North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela or the Soviet Union — all countries with government ownership of industry. They will simply bring us a little closer to the standard set by other wealthy industrialized democracies — our international peer group.

Many conservatives, of course, seem to think that, as an “exceptional” nation, we have nothing to learn from any other country. But that is hubris speaking. The coronavirus pandemic should have shattered illusions about U.S. omnipotence that not even our rapid vaccination campaign can undo. While other nations such as Brazil and India have much larger outbreaks today, the United States still has more verified covid-19 deaths (more than 576,000) than any other country. The United States remains a leader in some important areas, including our high-tech industry, our financial industry, our universities and our armed forces. But by most indexes we are an embarrassing international laggard.

The Commonwealth Fund notes that the United States spends nearly twice as much on health care as a percentage of gross domestic product than do other wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Yet, compared with our peers, we have lower life expectancy, higher suicide rates, higher levels of obesity, higher rates of chronic diseases and higher rates of avoidable deaths. It’s no coincidence that the United States, alone among advanced industrialized countries, does not have universal health care. The United States is also alone among OECD nations in not having universal paid family leave.

The Economic Policy Institute notes that income inequality in the United States has been worsening for years: “From 1978 to 2018, CEO compensation grew by 1,007.5%. … In contrast, wages for the typical worker grew by just 11.9%.” Our level of income inequality is now closer to that of developing countries in Africa and Latin American than to our European allies.

In other respects we are simply mediocre. The OECD reports that the minimum wage in the United States is the 15th highest in the world — well behind countries such as Germany and South Korea. The World Economic Forum rates U.S. infrastructure 13th in the world (Singapore is No. 1). The OECD found in 2018 that in an international test of 15-year-olds, the U.S. ranked 11th out of 79 countries in science and 30th in math.

We do lead in some areas. The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate (higher than in Turkmenistan and Cuba!), the world’s highest rate of civilian gun ownership and the highest rate of violent gun deaths among other advanced industrialized democracies (more than eight times higher than Canada’s).

While we spend more on prisons than other countries, we spend less on social services. The U.S. government’s share of GDP (37.8 percent) is considerably lower than in most other OECD countries (in France it’s 55.6 percent). Yet the United States is hardly a free-market paradise: The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom ranks the United States No. 20, far behind countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Denmark that have more robust welfare states.

Yes, it’s possible to combine a vibrant free market with generous social welfare spending. In fact, that’s the right formula for a more satisfied and stable society. In the OECD quality-of-life rankings — which include everything from housing to work-life balance — the United States ranks an unimpressive 10th. The leaders are Norway, Australia, Iceland, Canada and Denmark — again, all emphatically capitalist countries whose governments spend a higher share of GDP than we do.

Biden’s plans, even if fully implemented, won’t cause the United States to leap to the front of the pack in quality-of-life rankings. He doesn’t have the support in Congress to address our rampant gun crime with tougher licensing for handguns and a ban on assault rifles (as occurred in Australia and New Zealand). He is not even trying to institute universal medical care — something that every other wealthy country already has — because to do so would invite the same Republican protests against “socialized medicine” that greeted the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

At most, with proposals such as federally subsidized child care, elder care, family leave and pre-K education — financed with modest tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals — Biden is merely moving us a bit closer to the kinds of government services that other wealthy, industrialized democracies already take for granted. We will remain on the smaller-government, lower-tax end of the spectrum, but we will have a slightly stronger social safety net than we had before. That’s far from radical. It’s simply sensible.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

'Unthinkable' discovery in Canada as remains of 215 children found buried near residential school

This discovery of the remains of 215 souls lost is appalling, heart-breaking, and disturbing. Makes me wonder just how many Native American children subjected to boarding schools in the U.S. died, too. 

This account provides added depth and concern to David Wallace Adam's groundbreaking text, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928, that I regularly have my students read. 

This is exactly the kind of "controversial topic" that the Texas State legislature—via its House Bill 3979 that is currently sitting on the governor's desk—does not want you to know because it might make some children (read: white children) "uncomfortable." Well, what about these children's "discomfort," a gross understatement that doesn't even come close to describing the anguish and suffering they experienced as victims of federal policy. Compounding this deep sense of pain, loss, and trauma was the hiding of this evil, genocidal truth, that for these families and communities, was and is a grievous open wound in a stagnant puddle of denied history.

Against the backdrop of this horrific narrative, legislation like House Bill 3979 arguably puts our children's lives and futures at risk. 

But for callous, political motivations to hide this history, this atrocity would have seen the light of day much sooner. An apology is woefully insufficient. 

There must be reparations along the lines of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommended 94 calls to action, to include both education and health equity. The U.S., too, would benefit from its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission for its violence against Native Peoples, African Americans, Asian Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, and today's Central Americans—much of it, ongoing.

So apt at this moment the African proverb, "Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter."

-Angela Valenzuela

'Unthinkable' discovery in Canada as remains of 215 children found buried near residential school

By Paula Newton, CNN

Updated 3:16 PM ET, Sun May 30, 2021

Remains of 215 children found buried near school in Canada 02:40

(CNN)The gruesome discovery took decades and for some survivors of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada, the confirmation that children as young as 3 were buried on school grounds crystallizes the sorrow they have carried all their lives.

"I lost my heart, it was so much hurt and pain to finally hear, for the outside world, to finally hear what we assumed was happening there," said Harvey McLeod, who attended the school for two years in the late 1960s, in a telephone interview with CNN Friday.

"The story is so unreal, that yesterday it became real for a lot of us in this community," he said.

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc community in the southern interior of British Columbia, where the school was located, released a statement late Thursday saying an "unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented" was confirmed.

"This past weekend, with the help of a ground penetrating radar specialist, the stark truth of the preliminary findings came to light -- the confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School," said Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc community.

"To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths," she said in the statement.

For decades, McLeod says he and former students like him would wonder what had happened to friends and classmates.

"Sometimes people didn't come back, we were happy for them, we thought they ran away, not knowing if they did or whatever happened to them," said McLeod, who now serves as chief of British Columbia's Upper Nicola band.

"There were discussions that this may have happened, that they may have passed," he says adding, "What I realized yesterday was how strong I was, as a little boy, how strong I was to be here today, because I know that a lot of people didn't go home."

The Kamloops Indian Residential school was one of the largest in Canada and operated from the late 19th century to the late 1970s. It was opened and run by the Catholic Church until the federal government took it over in the late 1960s.

Harvey McLeod attended Kamloops in the late 1960s. He said the school scarred generations of First Nation members.

It closed permanently about a decade later and now houses a museum and a community facility with both cultural and memorial events.

Community leaders say the investigation will continue in conjunction with the British Columbia Coroner's Office and that community and government officials will ensure the remains are safeguarded and identified. Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe issued a statement saying that her office is early in the process of gather information.

"We recognize the tragic, heartbreaking devastation that the Canadian residential school system has inflicted upon so many, and our thoughts are with all of those who are in mourning today," she said.'

In 2015 Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a report detailing the damaging legacy of the country's residential school system. Thousands of mostly indigenous children were separated from their families and forced to attend residential schools.

The report detailed decades of physical, sexual and emotional abuse suffered by children in government and church run institutions.

'Horrific chapter in Canadian history'

"The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart - it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country's history. I am thinking about everyone affected by this distressing news. We are here for you," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted Friday.

In an interview with CNN, Carolyn Bennett, Canada's minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, says this revelation speaks to all Canadians about a "very painful truth" and a "horrific chapter in Canadian history."

"This was the reason why five of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wanted us to deal with the missing children and the unmarked graves because they knew there was much more than what they had been able to ascertain at the hearings," said Bennett.

The commission recommended 94 calls to action as remedy and healing. Indigenous rights' groups says very few of them have been acted upon, including the need for health and educational equity between indigenous and non-indigenous children.

In 2019, Trudeau said he and his government accepted the harm inflicted on indigenous peoples in Canada amounted to genocide, saying at the time that the government would move forward to "end this ongoing tragedy."

McLeod says the residential school system scarred generations in his family and the abuse he suffered at the school in Kamloops terrorized him, his family and his classmates.

A childhood photo of Harvey McLeod, at left.

"The abuse that happened to me was physical, yes, was sexual, yes, and in 1966 I was a person that didn't want to live anymore, it changed me," said McLeod, comparing the trauma he suffered to that of a prisoner of war.

He says he entered the school in 1966 along with most of his siblings.

"Seven of us went at the same time, same school that my mum and my dad went to, there wasn't an option, it was a requirement, it was the law. And I can only imagine what my mom and my dad, how they felt, when they dropped some of us there knowing what they experienced at that school," he said.

As was documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many of the children in residential schools did not receive adequate medical care with some dying prematurely of diseases like tuberculous.

The commission estimates that more than 4,000 children died while at residential schools over a period of several decades, but the final commission report acknowledges it was impossible to know the true number.

McLeod says this week's discovery at his former school has already helped community members he knows discuss the abuse they suffered and the inter-generational trauma it has caused.

He says he would like to be engaged in healing and now wants to avoid pointing fingers or blame.

"I have forgiven, I have forgiven my parents, I have forgiven my abusers, I have broken the chain that held me back at that school, I don't want to live there anymore but at the same time make sure that the people who didn't come home are acknowledged and respected and brought home in a good way," he said.