(Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the school district's community in New Jersey . It is in Stewartsville.)
Laura Choi is a school board member for the Greenwich Township School District in Stewartsville, New Jersey. She’s watched as the state implemented broadly inclusive transgender student-rights policies, added Asian American history studies and adopted a new sex education program.
“We have public coming to board meetings using homophobic and transphobic language, demanding that parents should decide what’s in their children’s curriculum rather than experts and professionals,” said Choi, who pointed out she was speaking for herself, not the school board.
The uproar over the changes, combined with COVID restrictions, was driven by right-wing activists. Now, some mid-Michigan schools face the potential for similarly organized backlashes. The national right-wing group Turning Point USA, with a $60 million budget, has listed Holt, East Lansing, Lansing, Okemos and Grand Ledge on its School Board Watch List.
TPUSA’s goal is engaging young people in right-wing politics.
Choi cited “diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in schools, institutions and legislations, combined with an increasingly hateful rhetoric and parents’ frustrations over student learning and mask mandates in public schools over the past few years” as creating “the perfect storm for far-right groups with extremist ideologies to organize an effort to run for local elections, especially on school boards.”
Members of the far-right Proud Boys, dressed in military fatigues, have visited some districts, she said. The right wing has been organizing through various internet channels, including Substack.
A blog called Chaos and Control “identified teachers, districts and even school board members who are ‘indoctrinating’ our children. They infiltrated the N.J. school board and N.J. teachers’ conventions, identified workshops and workshop leaders who present on ‘LGBTQ+ introduction’ and ‘Anti-Racist Pedagogies in the Classroom,’ etc. They shared their names, places of work. It was really dangerous.”
Lonnie Scott, executive director of the Lansing-based political education organization Progress Michigan, said TPUSA’s watch list was designed to stoke division in communities.
“Their goal is to spread fear, disinformation and division and oppose all efforts to create safe and inclusive classrooms, and they’re willing to sacrifice students’ well-being to gain political power,” he said.
Turning Point USA did not respond to two emails sent through its “Contact Us” portal.
The Anti-Defamation League has a lengthy backgrounder on the group, noting its crossover appeal with white nationalists. While the group condemns white nationalism, its events attract white supremacists and regularly result in physical confrontations with protesters.
A review of the entries on the local districts shows that TPUSA is focused on alleged racial education. For instance, the Lansing School District is cited because it approved a diversity audit, which found disparities in how children and teachers of color are treated. The district is working on developing programming to address the disparities.
John McGraw, a spokesman for the Lansing School District, declined to comment on the watch list.
Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the nonprofit Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said the watchlist is an alarm bell.
“I find this Turning Point watchlist insidious,” she said. “Obviously, it opens up those on it to harassment or even worse. School board members and candidates have already faced harassment for policies related to DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), teaching of issues surrounding race and support of teaching LGBTQ history or rights. This opens them up to further potential abuse.”
She said the answer to the list is making sure “community members denounce TPUSA’s watchlist and make clear it is not welcome.”
Beirich also said it was important for law enforcement to be aware of the list and the potential dangers to school board members.
City Pulse reached out to Lansing, East Lansing, Meridian Township and Grand Ledge Police Departments, as well as the Eaton and Ingham County sheriff’s departments. None were aware of the list before being contacted for this story.
“As sheriff, I hope websites like these don’t encourage people to disrupt board of education meetings or the professional/personal lives of their elected board members,” said Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth. “Although the website doesn’t specifically advocate violence, the anger, chaos and police involvement running in the background as you log in is impressionable and concerning. Having to place additional law enforcement resources at school board meetings can take these valuable resources away from other areas of our communities.”
Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon also weighed in with concern.
“While I fully support the First Amendment and citizen engagement in political expression, the School Board Tracking website is troubling,” she said. “I am continuing to gather information to better understand the potential impacts of this site and others and will be communicating with local law enforcement to ensure that we are all aware of possible issues in our county.”
Ashley Kuykendoll defeated two ring-wing candidates for the Grand Ledge Board of Education in the Nov. 8 General Election. She is also a person of color. She noted the district has taken strides to provide extensive information through its website.
“I hope those who rely on this list as a resource and/or contribute to the content are utilizing fact-based information straight from the source to aid in their decision making,” she said.
Toni Hughes Glasscoe, another woman of color who won a seat on the Grand Ledge School Board after defeating another right winger, said she will not allow outside groups to impact “an organic ecosystem that allows us to see how we are alike.”
“I am not afraid. I am not intimidated,” Glascoe said. “I will always do what is in the best interest of the students.” ”
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