When Barb Mozdzen opened last month’s school board meeting in Chandler, Arizona, for public comment, she had a caveat.
While many attendees indicated they were at the meeting to discuss “critical race theory,” the topic was not actually on the agenda that day.
In fact, critical race theory wasn’t being taught in Chandler’s schools, and neither the board nor administration had discussed the possibility of implementing it into the curriculum, said Mozden, the board president.
In the following hour, an attendee said he saw no distinction between critical race theory and equity trainings. Conservative activist Charlie Kirk said the board was “stomping on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” And, outside, the chair of the right-wing Patriot Party of Arizona, Steve Daniels, was arrested.
In recent weeks, protests, arrests and appearances by national activists have become the norm at school board meetings across the country. Anger is boiling over after a year and a half of virtual learning and strict COVID-19 rules in schools. Fears about critical race theory, stoked in national media and fanned by conservative think tanks and activists, have heightened tensions with schools even more.
The pitched battles, over issues ranging from racism to masks to the rights of transgender students, have often caught district leaders flatfooted. Board members, used to sleepy and ill-attended public meetings, are reeling.
A meeting room was cleared in Michigan. Shouting matches broke out in Kentucky. In Virginia, sheriff’s deputies arrested and cited someone after a school board voted to end its unruly meeting. School board members in New Hampshire were compared to Nazis. A father in New York rushed to the stage to confront a board member.
“This has been building up over this past year and a half. And I think we’ve reached a crescendo because I think people are just tired,” said Anna Maria Chávez, executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association.
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‘Perfect storm of timing and misinformation’
Critical race theory is not being taught in most schools across America. It’s a decades-old legal framework for examining laws that reproduce inequalities in society.
Common misinformation about the theory ties it to Marxism, and some opponents claim it teaches white children to hate themselves.
“What critical race theory teaches, even though it’s not being taught in primary schools, isn’t that radical,” said Eric Ward, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It is mainly arguing that racism and an ideology called ‘white supremacy’ and a historical period called ‘chattel slavery’ have had a significant impact on the law, meaning on the way that we function within a society.”
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The term began circulating more widely among conservatives in September 2020, when former President Donald Trump heard about it in a Fox News segment and issued a memo ordering the government to stop funding training for contractors on critical race theory, which he called propaganda.
In recent years, schools have also worked to teach more history from the perspective of oppressed people and sought to introduce equity initiatives that target achievement gaps among students driven by socioeconomic backgrounds. Those efforts have only increased since the racial reckoning in the U.S. that arose from the murder of George Floyd.
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Additionally, about a year before the Black Lives Matter movement galvanized countless people to protest around the country, The New York Times published a series of essays called the “1619 Project,” which aimed to “reframe the country’s history” in the context of slavery as well as contributions from Black Americans. The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, won a Pulitzer Prize for her essay, but the project was also a frequent target of Trump.
School board conversations around race are also coming after an unprecedented year for those organizations, Chávez said. During the pandemic, boards engaged parents in new ways, hosting virtual forums and posting regularly on social media. And parents were more involved as decisions were made around COVID-19 precautions and school reopening, she said.
Now, parents feel empowered – and they’re fed up.
At a school board meeting in Penfield, New York, parent Rich Tyson yelled from the audience when he noticed a school board member mocking a public commenter. The board member cursed and gestured for Tyson to come to the stage, setting off chaos that cleared the room until the meeting resumed in a virtual-only forum.
The pandemic has made many parents more aware of how school districts operate — and they don’t like what they see, Tyson told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, part of the USA TODAY Network.
“It just woke us up to how decisions are made at a local level, and how many are not made at a local level,” Tyson said.
Further exacerbating the issue, said Sherry Johnson, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association, are state decisions that then cause confusion locally.
“When guidance changes on a Friday and the expectations are to be implemented on a Monday, that’s just not enough time to communicate to the entire community – especially if you yourself don’t have clear guidance,” she said. “There’s this perfect storm of timing and misinformation.”
More on New York:School board meetings are turning into shouting matches. Here’s why
A ‘Wizard of Oz element’ to the critical race theory discussion
Raucous meetings around the country may appear to be driven by a growing group of worried families. But experts also point to well-funded conservative and libertarian think tanks using critical race theory as a catchall phrase to spook parents and gin up activism.
“There’s definitely a connection,” said Richard Gray, deputy director of the NYU Metro Center in New York City, a social justice nonprofit that works on school equity issues. “There’s a ‘Wizard of Oz’ element to this, where you pull back the curtain and see it isn’t just a groundswell movement of concerned parents, but a well-orchestrated political movement.”
“If you had to choose three words and put them together to heighten the most concern, this would be the trifecta,” added John Rogers, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.
“Race,” for instance, prompts anxiety around broader demographic changes and the reckoning that played out after Floyd’s murder. “Critical” and “theory” imply conspiracy or controversy.
Numerous states have introduced bills that would prohibit schools from teaching “divisive,” “racist” or “sexist” concepts. While they seldom mention critical race theory directly, in many cases legislators have cited it as a driving force behind the measures.
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Newly formed right-leaning organizations such as Parents Defending Education and No Left Turn in Education have encouraged parents to play more active roles at school board meetings. Conservative think tanks, including the Manhattan Institute and Heritage Foundation, have also increasingly focused on the issue.
Heritage Action, the foundation’s 501(c)(4) lobbying arm, for example, helped organize a rally in Loudoun County, Virginia, to “stop critical race theory.”
Others, like Citizens for Renewing America, a group founded by a former Trump administration official who penned the critical race theory memo, have developed toolkits and how-to’s for parents. The Citizens for Renewing America guide bills itself as “an A-to-Z guide on how to stop Critical Race Theory and reclaim your local school board.”
Fox News has also mentioned “critical race theory” on its network nearly 1,300 times in the past three and a half months, according to a recent study from the left-leaning group Media Matters for America.
On social media, the phrase has increasingly gained prominence. Since the start of the year, nearly 340,000 Facebook posts on public pages and groups mentioning the phrases “critical race theory” or “school board” have garnered over 70 million interactions on the platform, according to data tracked by the social media analytics tool CrowdTangle.
Some of the posts included videos with the titles, “Mom tears apart school board over Critical Race Theory” or “Teacher TORCHES School Board to Their Faces Until They Cut Her Mic,” shared by right-wing media outlet Newsmax and conservative commentator Dan Bongino, respectively.
Often, parents who are galvanized into taking action at a school board meeting on a given issue may represent a “vocal minority” getting “far more attention than they deserve,” said Vladimir Kogan, an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University.
In Arizona, activist groups have organized parents to attend meetings all over the state, said Heidi Otero, a spokesperson for the state’s school boards association.
“You see the same exact 120 people. Many of them don’t even represent that area,” Otero said of districts like Chandler. “Where are the 50,000 parents, the families that are representative of that community?”
In May, a Scottsdale school board meeting was canceled when an unruly crowd chanted, “No more!” as members asked parents and attendees to adhere to the meeting’s social distancing and mask rules.
Welcome to school boards across Arizona in 2021:Members under fire for mask use, ‘critical race theory’ accusations
Comment cards attendees completed to speak at the meeting included issues such as vaccines, mask mandates and transparency over curricula, including critical race theory, board President Jann-Michael Greenburg said. None of those topics were on the meeting agenda.
“This is a deliberate misinformation campaign,” he told The Arizona Republic.
Another meeting in Peoria was disrupted and almost switched to a virtual format at the advice of local law enforcement present at the meeting. While the meeting continued in person, attendees condemned critical race theory for 40 minutes, saying to teach it would be to condone racism.
“It’s not like we don’t know what happens with this critical race theory, or equity, or inclusion, or any of these other flowery names that you want to call it. It doesn’t matter what you call them. … You know what it does? The exact opposite of everything they say it does,” said Angie Russo, who represented the group Purple for Parents. “It has not a thing to do with equality. It has to do with payback.”
‘National political narratives’ shape local rhetoric
Purple for Parents is a conservative group founded in response to teacher walkouts in 2018, and its members have been present at other Arizona meetings, including in Scottsdale, Vail and Chandler.
While the organization has its roots in state, it is listed on a map organized by the national nonprofit Parents Defending Education.
Asra Nomani, a former journalist who is the national group’s vice president for strategy and investigations, said she got interested in similar discussions in 2020 when her child’s selective high school in northern Virginia announced proposed changes to its admissions policy.
Thomas Jefferson High School, part of Fairfax County’s public school board, nixed its challenging admissions exam and approved a “holistic review” process, which would take into account factors such as whether the student is in a low-income household or one that doesn’t primarily speak English.
The change sparked lawsuits and parent protests, and it inspired Nomani to connect with others in her community via a Facebook group. From there, Nomani said, the discussion grew and turned to messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. They got a website and began sharing ideas and skills with each other, such as how to file a public records request or place an op-ed in a newspaper.
“Toolkits are not like some diabolical dark money plan. They are also parents trying to effectively advocate for kids,” she said.
In March, a news release from Parents Defending Education said the group “trains parents how to put schools and officials on the spot, gain media attention, get involved with school boards and other oversight bodies, and make sure the school knows there will be consequences for indoctrination and radicalism in the classroom.”
“I believe that the school board members are gaslighting parents,” Nomani said.
In another northern Virginia county, a school board meeting turned violent after debate over critical race theory and how teachers address transgender students.
The June 22 Loudoun County meeting ended after just a few speakers made public comment. Photos on social media showed a man being held by police with a bloodied lip. One person was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, and a second was cited for trespassing.
After an earlier school board meeting in June, multiple clips posted to conservative news media’s social media accounts went viral. Attendees called schools “indoctrination camps” and compared critical race theory to Marxism and the Chinese Communist Party.
The spate of school board protests have also included activism against equity initiatives.
In Troy, Michigan, the goal of equity programs is to eliminate the impact of factors such as race, “so that everyone has the same level of access to learning and growth opportunities in our district,” said Cornelius Godfrey, who is leading the programs.
But at a recent school board meeting, parents worried aloud that white students would be marginalized and made to feel bad about being white if equity programs succeed.
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Godfrey said he has seen parents in school board meetings refer to critical race theory as an umbrella term for equity programs, when the two are not synonymous.
“Things are a lot more nuanced and complicated than some of our detractors on the political stage would like to make them seen,” he said.
‘Trump things’ shape local rhetoric
The rhetoric and much of how critical race theory has been described in conservative media mirrors what Trump said during his September 2020 speech announcing the 1776 commission to promote “patriotic education.”
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The string of events that led to Trump signing the memo banning trainings on critical race theory and his later speech have been well documented. The Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show for a segment on critical race theory, and the next morning, Rufo told the Atlantic, Trump told his chief of staff to reach out to the think-tank fellow.
In his address at the National Archives, Trump warned of “liberal indoctrination of America’s youth” and cast critical race theory as a “Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation.”
“Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools,” he claimed. “Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words.”
This isn’t the first time that national political talking points have created partisan divides in local school boards, Kogan noted.
Remember Common Core? The set of educational standards was adopted a decade ago by dozens of states, and their full or partial appeal drove local and state elections around the country.
The principles in the standards were supported by nearly two-thirds of Americans, according to an Education Next survey in 2017.But when people were asked specifically about “Common Core,” support dropped to 41%.
“We’re seeing how these national political narratives are seeping into our local school board meetings,” said Chávez, of the National School Boards Association.
More on New Hampshire:Markings on students at Exeter prom cause parents to complain to school board
That dynamic played out recently in Exeter, New Hampshire, where a meeting of a joint school board featured attendees calling board members Nazis, communists and Marxists, plus someone who said school officials were on par with the authoritarian state of North Korea.
The comments came after rules at the Exeter senior prom required students who were unvaccinated or could not prove vaccination status to have numbers written on their hands in Sharpie for contact tracing purposes.
Attendees of the school board meeting compared the practice of marking unvaccinated individuals to Nazi Germany,a comparison House GOP member Marjorie Taylor Greene has also invoked to criticize COVID-19 vaccination protocols.
“In 1939 when (the Nazis) put those stars on those people – ‘Oh, it’s just a star’; that’s what they said at the time,” said Lisa Mazur, a resident of Goffstown, which is not part of the school district. “Oh, it’s just a Sharpie marker. That’s how it starts. You branded your kids. … In World War II, we said: ‘Never again.’ But here we are.”
It was the first in-person public meeting held by the board after New Hampshire’s COVID-19 emergency orders ended.
The next night, at another school meeting, some parents spoke out in support of the district, acknowledging the difficult choices the officials have been facing amid the pandemic.
“This is a global pandemic,” said Mary Ann Cappiello, a mother of a student in Stratham. “We have no blueprint for it.”
Contributing: Erin Richards and Alia Wong, USA TODAY; Taylor Seely, Joshua Bowling, Renata Cló, Paulina Pineda and Richard Ruelas, Arizona Republic; Lily Altavena, Detroit Free Press; Justin Murphy, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle; Alexander LaCasse, Portsmouth Herald; The Associated Press
Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller
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