On Long Island in New York where I teach, rightwing groups have disrupted school board meetings, attacking teachers, administrators, and board members over vaccine and masking mandates and for supposedly infusing Critical Race Theory into the curriculum to target and embarrass their white children. This has happened in districts with tiny numbers of minority students and staff so it is never made clear who is doing the targeting; it is just asserted. Board members report receiving harassing emails and the situation has become so tense in Suffolk County that police increased the number of patrols assigned to school board meetings.
The problem is not limited to Long Island. The National School Boards Association petitioned President Biden to invoke federal anti-terrorism laws to stop threats of violence against school workers and officials. It labeled the threats a “form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes” and Attorney General Merrick Garland has requested that the F.B.I. and federal and state attorneys develop strategies to combat the threats.
On Long Island, protesters, who call themselves the Loud Majority, claim to be local parents with no broader affiliation. However, in at least three Long Island communities a group identifying themselves as members of the Proud Boys marched in defense of white “Western chauvinism."
While there are no documented links connecting the Long Island school board disruptions with any national organizations, the links are much clearer in the suburban Philadelphia Central Bucks School District and the in the small Cumberland school district just north of Portland, Maine.
According to a report in the New York Times, the Central Bucks School District is a hot spot in the most recent national school wars. The last school board election put in office a slate of well-financed rightwing candidates who have permitted endless discussion of extraneous issues at school board meetings, countenanced hate speech, and launched investigations of the material in school libraries. Decisions by the board’s new majority have drawn attention away from serious problems that should have been addressed. In the district, there are school bus driver and substitute teacher shortages, nurses and custodians are overwhelmed and understaffed as they try to address COVID related health and safety mandates. Classes are overcrowded and teachers report they are struggling to handle an increase in student fights and a surge in cases of depression and even suicide.
In addition, under the leadership of the new school board majority, Central Bucks School District doesn’t comply with the masking mandate established by the Pennsylvania Department of Health or report to parents about COVID cases in the district schools. It permits asymptomatic, but infected children, to attend school, and allows parents to sign forms authorizing “medical exemptions” from mask and vaccine guidelines. Meanwhile district employees are plagued by harassment lawsuits distracting administrative staff from doing their jobs.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the election campaigns of the new rightwing board members, most of it from the political action committees Back to School PA PAC and Keeping Kids in School PAC that were either formed or financially supported by a “venture capitalist” named Paul Martino. Martino, who made his initial money from online sports betting company, is not just a local parent. According to research published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, he is affiliated with the conservative Federalist Society and is a major Republican Party donor who is helping the party in a national effort to mobilize rank-and-file voters through school board initiatives. Previously, Martino gave thousands to dollars to Republican candidates including Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Georgia Republican Senate candidates David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. In 2019, he contributed $25,000 to a PAC that ran an ad showing I photograph Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on fire. He also has ties to the rightwing group Project Veritas.
After the murder of George Floyd, the Cumberland, Maine school district issued a statement denouncing white supremacy. This led to the district being accused of indoctrinating children by teaching them Critical Race Theory. Some disgruntled local parents started to work with the group No Left Turn in Education in what they describe as a war against the left. No Left Turn received a big public relations boost when its founder was featured on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson show.
Rightwing activists with parental support are involved in at least fifty school board recall campaigns in 39 states trying to remove over 125 school board members. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican Presidential candidate, pledges to make sure “there’s not a single school board member who supports critical race theory.” The rightwing Heritage Foundation think tank and the Koch brothers American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have been pouring money and resources into writing and lobbying for model bills combatting the threat of Critical Race Theory and conducting webinars for organizers.
I have been accused of using the term rightwing as a pejorative. Well, as the saying goes, if the shoe fits, wear it. Referring to political positions as left and right has its origins in the French Revolution of 1787. In the new French delegates assembly, the more radical parties were seated on the left (La Gauche) and the more conservative parties on the right (Le Droit).
Some conservatives and Republicans in the United States have tried to distance themselves from more extreme spokespeople and actions, including those who participated in the January 6 insurrection at Congress or who are apologists. However, Republicans in Congress overwhelming refused to denounce Paul Gosar when he posted an animated video showing him killing another member of Congress and attacking President Biden with a sword and they have refused to support a Congressional investigation of the insurrection, so I have no problem labeling them all as rightwing.
To the best of my knowledge the people on Long Island who disrupted at school board meetings did not openly identify themselves as members of any political party or national organization. I think it is accurate to say that at least some of the vocal anti-vaxxers and anti-mask people at school board meetings are also associated with the anti-CRT movement. I do not claim that every parent who protests against vaccines, masks, and CRT on Long Island, in Cumberland, Maine, and in Bucks County, Pennsylvania is only interested in politics and not really concerned about the health and education of their children, but I definitely think they are being manipulated by powerful rightwing forces.
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