Pedophiles. Groomers. Communists.
These are names angry parents, railing against mask mandates, LGBTQIA+-inclusive books, and classroom discussions of racism, have called members of the Orange County Board of Education.
For the past two years, run-of-the-mill conservatives and right-wing extremists have turned out in force to decry the school district’s progressive policies, wearing T-shirts that read, “Educate, don’t indoctrinate,” and echoing the motto of “parental rights” group Moms for Liberty: “I don’t co-parent with the government.”
Tensions peaked in September when some 50 members of the Proud Boys, a white nationalist hate group, attended a board meeting in uniform, prompting the board to pass a resolution opposing “incidents of hostile and racist behavior” and consider measures to buffer schools from political protests.
That hasn’t dampened conservatives’ fervor. As the election approaches, some liberals are worried about the momentum groups like Moms for Liberty and the Education First Alliance have built among voters in Orange County. Local members of these groups are active at OCS board meetings, showing up weekly to criticize the board’s actions.
Now, these groups’ members, along with members of local parent protest group OCS Truth, are campaigning to elect a slate of conservative candidates to the board who are expected to reverse progressive policies.
With four of seven seats up for grabs, the future of education in Orange County is on the line. Republicans and unaffiliated voters could flip the current progressive majority, especially as board members Brenda Stephens and Hillary MacKenzie, whose terms end this year, are not seeking reelection.
Of the seven candidates running, three are conservative—Bethni Lee, Penny Carter King, and Anne Purcell. Some hold worryingly extreme views.
What’s Happening in Orange County?
During the past two years, a quorum of board members—Stephens, MacKenzie, Carrie Doyle, Jennifer Moore, and Sarah Smylie—have passed some of the most progressive school system policies in the state.
The board’s gender support policy, approved in 2020, outlines how staff should support trans students by using preferred names and pronouns, addressing health and social needs, and preventing discrimination and harassment.
Conservatives have attacked the policy, saying it allows school staff to keep secrets from parents about their child’s gender identity. In fact, the policy attempts to balance support for trans students with “the requirement that parents be kept informed about their children.”
“In some cases, transgender students may not want their parents to know about their transgender status,” the policy states. “These situations must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The paramount consideration in such situations is the health and safety of the student.”
To promote racial equity, the board has worked to reduce suspensions, reduce student proficiency gaps between minority and white students, make schools more responsive to alternative learning styles, and hire more minority teachers.
Last year, board members also voted to change the names of two schools originally named after people with racist ties.
Most recently, the board voted unanimously to retain LGBTQIA+-inclusive books Gender Queer, Lawn Boy, and Out of Darkness in school libraries. Moms for Liberty and OCS Truth campaigned to ban those books. Board members Will Atherton and Bonnie Hauser joined the progressive cohort on that vote.
An Incumbent’s Perspective
Atherton, who is running for re-election, has been relatively quiet about his decisions to vote “yes” on the gender support policy and retention of LGBTQIA+-themed books. In INDY Week’s candidate questionnaire, he simply stated he voted “to support families and students.”
“Everybody seems to want to make this election about books and whether you support LGBTQIA+ students,” Atherton told the INDY. “Equity is about making sure every student is getting what they need. It’s about making sure our schools are welcoming, inclusive.”
Although Atherton and another candidate, school resource officer Andrè Richmond, have received some support from conservative groups, they each espouse progressive ideas.
“I am not a conservative,” Atherton says, adding that people should look at his record of voting “yes” on progressive issues. “I am not running on a campaign of ‘change.’ What I want to do is go forward and improve [our policies] as we’re coming out of the pandemic.”
Atherton says he will focus on students’ academic success and retention of teachers. He says the district needs to continue work to reduce racial disparities between students and disavows the idea that critical race theory is taught in schools.
Richmond, who is campaigning on school safety, did not respond to requests for comment from the INDY, but did talk about his platform last month during a ‘Meet the Candidates’ roundtable discussion hosted by Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce.
Richmond favors letting school administrators handle student discipline and sending students who commit crimes to diversion programs rather than juvenile detention, he said.
“If a child does something wrong, we normally allow the schools to deal with the situation first. And if it’s a repeated offense, then we get involved and we send them through diversion programs, we try to get them help,” Richmond said during the roundtable event.
“We’re not here to see how many kids we can lock up. We’re here as a resource, and we’re here to bridge the gap to make sure our kids understand how important law enforcement is.”
A Wave of Backlash
The current school board’s progressive platform has drawn conservativ ire, prompting criticism from the Orange County GOP and spawning groups like OCS Truth. They, along with Moms for Liberty, encourage parents to monitor district curricula and speak up about lesson plans they don’t like, and file complaints about teachers who discuss race, gender, or sexuality in the classroom.
“It’s actually a pretty scary situation,” says Christina Clark, a high school English teacher and president of the Orange County Association of Educators (OCAE). “We have this very active group that has been going to car lines…and giving parents misinformation about what our intentions are as far as teaching.”
The group has also passed out fliers in teacher mailboxes, Clark says.
“That feels like a threat,” she says. “It’s like, ‘We’re watching you. We’re making sure you’re only teaching whatever they think is appropriate for students,’ rather than (trusting) our discretion as professional educators.”
Without context, nationalist, racist, and transphobic arguments can come across as patriotic and protective.
Moms for Liberty frames its attempts to ban books as efforts to protect children from pornography and sexual predators. Right-wing activists frame attempts to teach students about white supremacy as efforts to indoctrinate children, foment division, and take agency away from parents.
A Slate Of Conservative Candidates: Bethni Lee
Bethni Lee, Penny Carter King, and Anne Purcell are three candidates right-wing groups support in this year’s race. Neither Lee nor Purcell responded to requests for comment from the INDY. King responded to the INDY via email.
Lee, a stay-at-home mom and registered nurse, has adopted the arguments of Moms for Liberty, her top campaign contributor. Lee’s campaign manager, John Posthill, is also the vice chair of the Orange County branch of Moms for Liberty.
During last month’s roundtable event, Lee said she entered the race because she was frustrated by the lack of support her daughter, who has Down syndrome, received at school during the COVID pandemic. Lee said the requirement that her daughter wear a face mask during speech therapy impeded her progress. She also said that mandates around COVID testing, mask-wearing, and participation in sports and extracurriculars should have been lifted last spring.
When asked if she supported using LGBTQIA+ students’ preferred names and pronouns, Lee said no.
“Just because a child says that they’re Batman doesn’t mean they’re Batman,” Lee said during the roundtable event. “I’m not gonna sit there and tell a 5-year-old they’re gonna be a girl just because one day they decide they want to be a girl.”
In a candidate questionnaire in The News & Observer, Lee wrote that schools have punished teachers for “personal health decisions” and ignored and excluded parents. She also argued teachers are trying to sway children to accept their views on “ideology, sexuality, (and) politics.”
In a questionnaire from the OCAE, Lee wrote that “explicit books should be moved from school libraries and sent to public libraries,” overlooking the fact that schools are public institutions.
“None of it is for educational purposes,” she adds. “It’s material that in no way should be in schools.”
On race, Lee suggests schools have discriminated against white students by discussing racism in our society and political institutions.
“The continual narrative that people are treated differently based on color only makes people believe it’s true,” Lee wrote in The N&O questionnaire.
“People are literally segregating themselves in the name of racism based on the color of skin, not realizing that this is racist in itself. (My cousin has) adopted two, girls, one white and one Black. They all have the same opportunities … No one color has it harder than any other.”
Lee has made concerning comments about racial disparities in education. In response to a question about the achievement gap between students of different demographics on the OCAE questionnaire, Lee wrote it is not a school issue.
“The fact is that each race has their own culture and way of seeing education,” Lee wrote. “Some communities do not value education as much as others. Some parents push their kids to be as educated as possible, and some don’t.”
Registered in 2010 as unaffiliated, Lee, voted in the Republican primary in the 2016 presidential election.
Penny Carter King
King, a pharmaceutical researcher, takes a softer approach to criticism of the current school board. She writes on her website members are more “focused on furthering political agendas” than improving teacher morale and student performance.
“Politics are the enemy of our children,” she wrote in an email to the INDY. “If we cannot get it together then there is no progress. We need to elect candidates that put our children and educators first. We should be laser-focused on our children’s education.”
This is a narrative of OCS Truth, which paints itself as an advocate for students and teachers, insisting the current school board is not focused on improving student achievement, nor giving teachers the support they need.
The OCAE recently denounced OCS Truth in a statement on social media asking the group to stop using OCAE’s data, logo, and name “in a confusing attempt to legitimize their cause.”
“These groups claim concern for teacher morale while, disturbingly, they exacerbate low teacher morale by breaking down trust between educators, students, and families,” the statement reads. “They break down this trust by spreading false fears about the material that we carefully select for students; they question our professional judgment and our compassionate pedagogy.”
Although OCS Truth argues teachers and staff are distrustful of the administration, Clark says the school board has been extremely supportive of educators.
“This board has been singular in how responsive they’ve been to educators, to parents, even to students as well,” Clark says. “They talk to everybody, they come to events. This is something that I don’t think was happening before we had this board. Compared to other districts in the state, our district has been very supportive of educators.”
In King’s OCAE questionnaire, she says she is in favor of “vetting books” with LGBTQIA+ content, adding, “The problem is explicit images.”
“I would like to see these books available but maybe not to all the students,” she wrote in her email to the INDY. “Perhaps we could house them in the guidance counselor’s office.”
King, who is unaffiliated, has voted in primaries for both parties, most recently the Republican primary in 2020.
If elected, King says in a News & Observer questionnaire that her top advisors would be current school board members Atherton and Hauser, as well as Stephen Halkiotis, a former school board member and one of her top campaign contributors.
Halkiotis served 12 years on the school board before stepping down in 2020. He was a moderate voice for the district, advocating for an examination of possible legal landmines before voting to ban the Confederate flag and other symbols of hate in schools. Halkiotis also initially opposed the board’s racial equity policy before ultimately voting yes on the measure in 2019.
Today, Halkiotis is the co-founder of the Friends of Orange County Schools, a PAC that supports King, Purcell, Atherton, and Richmond. Halkiotis describes himself as a “moderate Democrat” and is no fan of the current board, saying their “far-left” agenda distracts from issues of student performance and teacher morale.
“So much attention has been paid to political ideologies of the far left, we have forgotten that the primary mission of a public school system is to educate children,” he told the INDY.
“It is not to be a social media platform denigrating Christopher Columbus, denigrating Abraham Lincoln,” Halkiotis adds, referencing debates over whether to teach children about Columbus’s massacre of Native Americans and Lincoln’s complicated views on slavery. “This is kind of nonsensical.”
Halkiotis argues the school board has prevented parents and community members from expressing their concerns. He cites the now-infamous fall school board meeting when sheriff’s deputies escorted public commenters, including Proud Boys, out.
“There’s too much influence going on by too-far-right groups and too far-left groups,” he says. “All [the current board has] done is provide immense dissension and division. They, in effect, have prohibited the community from having a reasonable discussion because of fear-mongering.”
Ultimately, Halkiotis says he wants the board to refocus on helping all children become successful, including through creating individualized education plans and giving more resources to schools, he says.
Purcell, a former Orange County Schools principal, has said some LGBTQIA+-inclusive books would be better kept in the guidance counselor’s office.
“That way, it’s giving the child a chance to have somebody to talk to. It’s giving them a resource,” she said during the Chamber’s roundtable event. “It’s giving them an opportunity to not be checking something out in the media center where other children are looking at them and may taunt them or bully them.”
On racism, Purcell said she’s observed more among students of color than among white students. During the roundtable event, Purcell’s initial statement was that while she was principal, any incidents of racism in schools were dealt with immediately and thoroughly.
“Anytime you have a situation that is bringing up issues of race or somebody being racist, it needs to be stopped right then and it needs to be met with head-on,” Purcell said. “The only way to do that is to have conversations.”
She added that she mostly observed name calling between students of color rather than between white and minority students.
“I have seen students of color calling other students of color names, and when I have had conversations with those students, they say ‘It’s ok for me to say that to my buddy. They’re my friend.’ But I’m saying, ‘No, it’s not okay to say that. Not here,’” Purcell said.
“That’s where I have seen (problems on race) the most. I have seen some white students calling students that and with me, it’s been addressed. But I have seen more cases than not of students of color saying to other students of color that I have called them out on it.”
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