A Kansas school board member lurks in the slime.

Garden of Evil 

A Kansas school board member lurks in the slime.

I haven't read Connie Morris' book, From the Darkness: One Woman's Rise to Nobility. It's out of print, but the online book-jacket synopsis suggests that Morris is a woman of extreme grace.

"From sexual abuse and violence at the age of 12, to a miraculous conversion and recovery, Connie Morris' remarkable story will inspire and transform you," it reads. There are also words of praise from Kansas' U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran, who says Morris' book is "a compelling story of what faith in Jesus Christ can do to change a person's life for the better."

Morris is a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, representing the western half of Kansas. But despite the title of her memoir, she hasn't quite grasped the concept of nobility.

Morris was elected two years ago, having run on a single issue: that taxpayers shouldn't educate the children of illegal immigrants.

At the time, Ranjit Arab was a University of Kansas Journalism School graduate working in Lawrence. Part of his job involved reading out-of-state newspapers, and when he went back to film school he made a class project about the intensifying controversy over educating the kids of illegals. Called El Jardin (The Garden), the 26-minute documentary examines the true meaning of "no child left behind."

After long shots of a Kansas highway headed west, viewers arrive in Garden City, where nonwhites slightly outnumber whites in a town of 32,000. There, immigrant workers put in long days at nasty meatpacking jobs. They also host colorful festivals and cook excellent food. And they send their kids to school. The teachers don't ask students whether their parents are legal. They don't care. The film's most moving moment might be when one white teacher, radiant in her platinum bouffant, says, "I love diversity. I love the challenges it brings into our society and to our schools. It makes me a richer person."

Not all Kansans feel that way, though, and Arab knew his film wouldn't be finished without comments from Morris. In March 2003, he began e-mailing her, requesting an interview. Morris said she didn't have time. "If you would still like my input," she wrote back, "please email 2-3 questions and I will respond. I applaud your efforts."

Arab tried to get a few minutes of face time with Morris at a public meeting in Topeka that May. The resulting footage shows Morris arriving five minutes before the meeting. She smiles when she sees a camera and a microphone. But when Arab asks his question, her expression turns to faux bewilderment and she hurries past. During a break in the meeting, she hides in the bathroom.

Arab's film won a couple of awards at the KAN Film Festival in June. And because the subject was of general interest, The Hutchinson News recapped the controversy on October 3.

That was when Morris told Harris News Service reporter Sarah Kessinger that she'd reported Arab to the FBI, "to ward off any possible stalking or terroristic behavior."

"If there's any further trouble, at least we have documented the beginning of the trouble," Morris tells me.

In the movie, watching Arab approach Morris is a little like watching Dave Helling's skinny nephew approach a third-rate Kay Barnes. Nonetheless, Morris claims, "I can assure you that the scene in the board room was aggressive and violent, nearly violent. It frightened me."

But was he really acting like a terrorist?

"Yes. And he crossed the rules of proper journalistic etiquette. And if he isn't going to learn from his classes how to behave, he does need to learn somewhere the proper way to get a story."

Um, Arab spent months politely asking for an interview.

"There may be times I will choose to give an interview, and I have when I am treated with respect and I feel like the report is going to be fair and honest," Morris says. "But I didn't receive that treatment from this young man from the very beginning."

This is clearly a load of rich Kansas manure. And maybe Morris knows it, because she starts giggling.

"I try not to take things too seriously," she explains when I ask why she's laughing. "I think this whole thing is funny, that it's a story. I think it's silliness."

Ranjit Arab isn't laughing.

To find out whether his own name is on some terrorist list at the FBI, Arab has had to file a Freedom of Information request.

"I doubt she would have cited 'terroristic behavior' if it had been a white filmmaker, simply because I asked a public official a question in a public forum," says Arab (his parents, both citizens, came to the U.S. from India in the '60s). "But she can just throw it out there, and it was printed in the newspaper. There it is: my name in the same sentence with 'terroristic behavior' and 'FBI.'"

Morris has used this technique before. She did it in the summer of 2002, when she accused Garden City Mayor Tim Cruz of being an illegal immigrant. "I find it appalling that a person can break the law and enter the country illegally and end up as mayor," she said.

Cruz is a third-generation Garden Citian. A manager at Sears, he spent eight years on the city council and was twice elected mayor. He's served with the United Way. A couple of years ago, he was inducted into the local high school's hall of fame.

During her campaign for the state school board, though, Morris used Cruz as fodder for stirring up anti-immigration sentiment.

"She was sending e-mails out to hate groups, talking about me being an illegal alien," Cruz tells me. "The e-mails started circulating in our local newspaper and TV stations. Finally, one of the newspapers got hold of her and somehow convinced her, or she convinced herself, that I wasn't an illegal. She called and asked if she owed me an apology. I told her that was up to her. Finally she did, but that was after weeks and weeks of talking bad about my name."

Morris is among the majority of Kansas Board of Education members who are expected to put the anti-evolution debate back on the table in the months ahead. They've also been talking about scrapping world history lessons, preferring that the focus be kept on Kansas and the United States.

Maybe they should just go ahead and put the Ten Commandments in lunchrooms, too. At least maybe they'd remember not to lie.

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