Over the past two years, school board watchers have been raising the alarm about growing extremism and the weaponization of public comment periods by right-wing culture war zealots in school districts across the nation. Several local districts, such as Central Bucks, have been featured prominently in regional and national news coverage of contentious and raucous school board meetings. Initially fueled by opposition to school closures and other pandemic-related responses, the focus quickly shifted to fighting “CRT” and anything broadly associated with equity, diversity and inclusion efforts in local public schools. This has led to de facto book bans, censorship, “Radical Gender Theory” hysteria, and other transphobic and/or homophobic policy proposals.
Right-wing media, a singular force in amplifying the ongoing school board frenzy, frequently airs viral video clips of outraged parents posted on social media, endorsing extremist views and spreading misinformation. The Souderton Area School District, a relatively isolated and controversy-adverse community straddled between Bucks and Montgomery counties, has faced many of the same issues as the District’s neighbors to the east, but has largely avoided the media limelight. That seems to be changing after a recent video clip of a public comment at the October school board meeting was posted on social media, garnered the attention of right wing media personalities and incited viewers’ outrage. This particular video features a speaker, parent of a former student, who made several unfounded and bizarre allegations including an allegation that her child was indoctrinated by teachers at Souderton Area High School to believe they were trans. Comments on the video include threats to teachers and administrators with one commentator writing that the teachers at the high school should be “exterminated.”
The District’s response to rising public outrage at the November board meeting included a lengthy statement from the solicitor regarding the District’s policy on public comment, emphasizing the need to maintain decorum during board meetings and indirectly addressing the comments made by the women in the viral social media post. Advocates activated by repeated homophobic and transphobic comments during the public comment period mobilized local parents, students, and other allies to show their support for the District’s initiatives to cultivate safe and inclusive learning environments for the students. District administrators firmly rejected unfounded allegations of “political” indoctrination and the existance of pornographic material in the school library, affirmed a commitment to federal and state regulations, such as Title IX, to protect the rights of LGBTQ students. The District firmly rejected four policy proposals similar to those recently passed by Central Bucks and Pennridge introduced by a local extremist associated with Moms for Liberty and the local Republican Committee.
While many were prepared for another round of attacks on LGBTQ students at December’s meeting, Simon Campbell, a new player in the Souderton Area School Board arena came to address the board looking to capitalize on Souderton’s recent publicity on right-wing media. Campbell, a self-anointed First Amendment activist, ironically wasn’t there to protest censorship of students and teachers or banning books; instead he was outraged at the District’s policy on public participation in official board meetings, known as Policy 903. The District recently revised this policy to bar non-residents from making public comments after successfully preventing local racial justice advocates from addressing the Board about issues such as educational equity and the District’s allocation of ARP funds. Campbell ignored President Keith’s denial to take the podium and proceeded to address his concerns about censorship of public comment and his belief that people were being intimidated by threats of civil litigation for libel or slanderous statements against the District. He was ultimately escorted out of the building by 2 officers of the District’s police force and has already posted a video of his performance on YouTube.
While school board meetings are being used by extremists as an audition for right-wing media celebrity, vulnerable children, families, and teachers are targeted and attacked and are merely collateral damage in their culture war. These so-called parental rights advocates are just a local iteration of a national astroturfed campaign to destroy the public’s confidence in our most vital institution to preserving American democracy, the public school system. Fringe groups closely aligned with the conservative political machine, like Moms for Liberty, are using fear mongering, racism, homophobia and transphobia to recruit largely white suburban women as culture warriors. Soccer moms have been replaced by an Americanized version of morality police whose mission is to “restore” traditional Christian values in our communities starting with our schools. I’m reminded of the Sinclair Lewis quote, “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
Parents and students are organizing to fight against the extremist agenda, but with a fraction of the resources of the extremist groups. But advocates for inclusive schools and education know that real community power-building comes from authentic grassroots organizing and every day their efforts are building a movement to preserve our most cherished institutions. Recent public opinion surveys indicate that a majority of Americans do not want to politicize schools.
The toxic political environment is having a negative impact on our children and our educators. One recent study from UCLA found that public schools in deeply divided communities have “limited opportunities for students to engage in learning and respectful dialogue on controversial topics and made it harder to address rampant misinformation.”
The future of our nation depends on preserving free, secular and accessible public education for every child in America. We need to come together, demand an end to this manufactured culture war, and partner with – not fight against – educators. We must continue to strive for welcoming and inclusive learning environments, continuously engage in critical thinking and respectful dialogue, and support the healthy development of all our youth. We can and must do this for the sake of our country and our children.