Today’s culture war in America has a new front: the school boards of public schools. They are meetings in which a handful of residents of a district discuss matters such as teachers’ salaries or cleaning services. However, a year ago, in different corners of the country, they have become the scene of protests, sometimes violent, led by parents against the “toxic political agenda” that includes the mandatory use of masks in classrooms , new approaches to racial equity in teaching or policies to integrate transgender people.
Several members of school boards have received in recent months death threats, rape, insults and harassment inside and outside school sessions that, since October, have been monitored by security agents by order of the Department of Justice. Among the members of the boards there have been factions and it is common to see half wearing a mask and the other not, to make it clear to which they belong. Such is the level of politicization of the debate that conservative and progressive groups have disbursed large sums of money in board contests to ensure that their position is as representative as possible.
In this unusual scenario, several right-wing politicians have appropriated the message of “parental rights” to gain electoral gain. Just a few weeks ago Republican Glenn Youngkin rose as governor of Virginia waving the banner of “leftist indoctrination” in the classroom. It was the first time in 12 years that Democrats lost in a state that was decisive in Joe Biden’s victory in 2020. Republicans have discovered a crack that crosses the entire national map to win the vote of outraged parents in the face of the legislative elections next November, when the conservatives will try to regain control of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
On the day that engineer and university professor Sami Al-Abdrabbuh was re-elected as a member of the Corvallis, Oregon, school board, in May, an individual approached his neighborhood to warn his neighbors that he was going to assassinate him. That same day, a campaign poster of the candidate, perforated by several bullets, appeared at a shooting range. “That disturbed me,” Al-Abdrabbuh says by phone. The teacher went to the police and changed his routine back home out of fear. After telling his story to The New York Times, where he explained how much he liked being part of the school community, but that he did not want to “die for it”, the harassment increased and he decided to install security cameras outside his home. There are parents who also claim to have received death threats, although they are a minority group in this complex panorama.
Al-Abdrabbuh explains that “what is happening” is “very strange” to him because normally “people who disagree expose it civically.” However, “what is happening” has been cooking for a while. For starters, the decision to keep schools closed this past summer-fall in Democratic towns – as Trump pushed for face-to-face classes to return – outraged many parents. At the end of 2020, parents began to participate more actively in school boards to ask for explanations about health measures and joined Facebook groups where they shared their frustrations. The pressure exerted by some in the meetings was fruitful, encouraging parents to get more involved, and the meetings began to run until one or two in the morning, with hundreds of them speaking.
In addition, in recent years, several districts, mostly progressive, have passed regulations to protect the rights of transgender students and have included activities to educate on “diversity, equality, and inclusion” on issues of race and gender. Some of these initiatives have provoked the rejection of the conservatives of each locality, who until now had not unified their discourse. However, in the last year a hundred groups have been created in defense of the “right of parents”, where they share their fears and anger. They have come to brand as “Marxists”, “pedophiles” and “traitors” to the members of the boards who think differently, as can be seen in the videos that have been viralized on the networks.
Action 1776 is one of those new organizations. His goal is to reestablish the 1776 Commission, created during the Donald Trump Administration to promote a “patriotic education.” Joe Biden disbanded it on his first day in the White House. The commission was a response to “Project 1619” by The New York Times, a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American institutions across the board to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the United States.
“It is not accurate to say that parents are protesting against teaching on these issues. They are against the blatant promotion of a radical ideological agenda that goes against their values and the values on which this nation was built ”, points out Adam Waldeck, president of Action 1776. In their opinion, what ignited this battle was that, during the pandemic, parents were able to see at home what their children were being taught and were “horrified”.
In districts of conservative states such as Texas, Kansas and South Carolina, dozens of biographies of LGTBIQ characters have been temporarily removed from school programs, or copies such as The maid’s tale by Margaret Atwood, and Blue eyes, of the Nobel Prize in Literature Toni Morrison, involuntary protagonist of the elections of Virginia by the crusade of the republican against its Literature. “I think we should throw those books into the fire,” said two members of a school board from Spotsylvania, Virginia, of copies with “sexually explicit” content.
Last fall Scott Mineo, a 49-year-old white security analyst, founded Parents Against Critical Theory of Race (PACT), a group that challenges academic doctrine that slavery in America The US is the origin of systemic racism still present in society. It is not taught in schools, but at the university level, but colleges across the country, especially since George Floyd’s assassination in May 2020, have embarked on initiatives to promote racial justice, taking steps such as increased hiring. more ethnically diverse staff, trainings for teachers on racial bias, and inclusion of books by African-American authors.
Mineo, and the tens of thousands of followers of these types of groups, believe that public schools are teaching children that “white people are implicitly biased and inherently racist, even if they don’t realize it.” “No one has the right to shove this garbage down our throats and tell us to believe it or we will be canceled. Honest discussion on this issue is welcome, forced acceptance is not ”, defends Mineo. Al-Abdrabbuh says he understands angry parents because the curricula today are different from what they used to learn. “But I also understand that they have to be aware that it is unacceptable that public education is for the community or the privileged race, and not for all cultures.”
The Justice Department in October called the events of recent months “an alarming spike in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” against members of school boards. US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland ordered the FBI and federal prosecutors to work with local law enforcement officers to monitor threats against people working in the nation’s 14,000 public school districts. The National Association of School Boards compared some of the incidents to domestic terrorism, though they backed down after the message triggered a backlash from some of its members.
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