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In part three of a series. an opposition galvanized by revelations of bizarre school policies finds itself on an enemies list

 

 

Matt Taibbi, 12/22/21

 

Part three of a series. For parts one and two of “A Culture War in Four Acts: Loudoun County, Virginia,” click here and here.

 

In their zeal to implement the “Action Plan to Eliminate Systemic Racism” devised by a California consultancy called the Equity Collaborative, the Loudoun County, Virginia Schools seemed to get everything wrong. Like the crew of a hijacked jetliner, they kept trying to win favor with displays of groveling and obedience, but only inspired annoyance and heightened tensions.

One of the Collaborative’s recommendations was that Loudoun “publish on the ‘Superintendent’s Message’ page” a statement “defining and condemning white supremacy.” School leaders hurled themselves into the task with élan, planning a microwave apology for a hundred-plus years of history. In preparation for both a written and videotaped statement, which was to include local African-American leaders like Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall, they asked Loudoun’s NAACP chapter head, pastor Michelle Thomas, if she wanted to participate. Her furious reply denounced the thoughtless demand for emotional labor.

“As victims of racism and discrimination, with its beginnings in segregated education,” Thomas said, “it is unconscionable for the abuser to ask the victim to provide assistance in writing an apology for the abuse.”

Abashed, the county nonetheless made a 14-minute video that appeared almost desperate in its earnestness, though still off somehow — its tone of succinct abjectness recalled the “I’m sorry I caused all that cancer” routine by Kids in the Hall comic Bruce McCulloch. Posting the video triggered a response headline, “Loudoun NAACP Leaders Find School Division’s Segregation Apology Lacking.” Pastor Thomas now blasted the apology as “self-serving,” and, as Loudoun Now explained, “Thomas questioned the timing and asked why the apology… did not include the involvement of community groups such as the NAACP.”

Thomas’s move was a master class in political punking, and surely would have been applause-worthy on that level alone, but for one thing: the Loudoun schools appeared to respond to the criticism by offering to set the Bill of Rights on fire.

Around that time, the school system drafted a proposal — this really happened — to prohibit employees from making “comments that are not in alignment with the school division’s commitment to action-oriented equity practices,” in “on-campus and off-campus speech.” The plan would ban any statements by LCPS employees deemed to be “undermining the views, positions, goals, policies or public statements” of school leadership. Furthermore, all employees would have a “duty to report” such comments. The draft statement even recognized their employees’ “First Amendment right to engage in protected speech,” but went so far as to say such concerns “may be outweighed” by the goal of achieving “directives, including protected class equity, racial equity, and the goal to root out systemic racism.”

The measure would eventually fail, but not before helping rally an opposition movement into existence. In the fall of 2020, a variety of pissed-parent groups, most politically conservative, began to form. With names like “PACT,” “The Virginia Project,” and “Fight For Schools,” they among other things began filing FOIA requests in hopes of a look at the particulars of the new “Action Plan.” Anger was accelerated by school closures. “All the kids got sent home with their laptops, and parents got to see what was really going on,” is how one parent put it.

Not only Republicans objected. Some more traditionally liberal educators and officials who’d welcomed what they expected to be basic “bias training” in hopes of addressing upsetting disparities in discipline especially, were shocked when they first started attending training sessions. Three people contacted for this story cited a video called the “Unequal Opportunity Race.” One school employee described an “‘Oh shit,’ moment,” fearing that “the wrong reaction, or any reaction actually” to the video might result in a reprimand. “Oh my God,” said another. “I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God.’” The video shows four track athletes — a white man and woman, a (presumably) Hispanic male, and a black woman — beginning a relay race through American history. The white men pass ever-fattening batons of cash to each other through the centuries, cruising to victory on a Jetsons-style conveyor belt of privilege while sipping from a giant cup marked YALE. The black woman collapses before a brick wall of discrimination reading DEAD END, while the Hispanic racer leaves the track in a floating jail cell after stumbling into a shark-infested tank called STANDARDIZED TESTS. If you could distill How To Be An Antiracist into an edible, this is the movie you’d make while high.

“I think privilege is real, I teach it to my kids,” the school employee said. “But that video is psychotic.” Another commenter felt the problems with the video were subtle: the effort to explain historical obstacles made sense, but ignored the experiences of poor whites and again-absent Asians, and also sent a confusing message by implying current America was still the same kind of impossible steeplechase. Was the final panel about how “Affirmative Action levels the playing field” referencing a remedy for past or current injustices? In an echo of the “Underground Railroad simulation” story, this video had also previously inspired multiple local school controversies, including in Virginia, if anyone had bothered to check.

Much later, in a New York Times story that included another teacher’s critical comments about the video, the school system would say “conservative activists” had “cherry-picked the most extreme materials” to make the program look bad, but the critics weren’t all conservatives.

In fact, the School Board’s one-size-fits-all, Scientology-like hostility to naysayers of any kind would end up becoming almost as controversial as the specifics of the “equity” plan, which as of late 2020 was still far less on the minds of local parents than, say, the county’s hesitancy to reopen schools, an issue that polls later showed was particularly damaging to Democrats among suburban women.

A key figure in the school-closure debate, who would also become central to later culture-war pileups, was a recently elected School Board member. Beth Barts is a character the most gifted fiction writer would struggle to create. Imagine asking a person incapable of learning the rules to Candy Land to pilot a 747 in a snowstorm, and you’re close to grasping what it meant to Loudoun to have Barts in elected office while the county tried to navigate a national controversy.

The former PTA officer, classroom volunteer, and Girl Scout troop leader announced she was running for the Board in 2019. The Loudoun Times-Mirror summed up her stated priorities then:

Parent outreach and communication is an area Barts said she feels is lacking transparency. She would like to see the School Board committee meetings recorded, livestreamed and archived if they continue to be held during the workday…

Within a year, the champion of transparency would launch an epic rebellion against the Freedom of Information laws, or against attempts by peers to explain the Freedom of Information laws, or possibly both. Barts had two irrepressible character traits her election set on course for collision. On one hand, like a lot of Americans, she was addicted to saying crazy shit on social media at all hours. On the other hand, she just could not be made to believe it was true that election to public office meant her posts were public record and no longer belonged entirely to her.

Barts was a great example of why conservative caricatures of woke warriors as statists or communists often undersell how obnoxious they really are. She would go on to evince near-total faith in the power of government to do everything from raise your children to regulate your speech, but like a lot of digital-age post-millennial types, Barts advanced such beliefs while retaining the typical American’s insistence on limitless privacy and property rights for herself, all while managing the additional difficult trick of not seeing the contradiction, like at all. Socialism for you, Atlas Shrugged for me is this movement’s rallying cry, and Barts proved a great exemplar, as her initial notoriety came from defying public obligations, and not even the hard ones.

Her first offense came in June of 2020, after sharing the contents of closed Board sessions on Facebook. Colleagues quietly pleaded with her to grasp the “closed” concept, and when she wouldn’t, they were forced to bring in a lawyer to explain the problem. Just weeks later, they were again forced to bring in counsel to explain that her emails and social media posts were public records and she couldn’t just delete them. She ignored the advice and even seemed to intentionally torpedo potential future defenses that she was just using Facebook for private ends by introducing posts with phrases like, “Speaking as a member of the LCSB…”

On November 6th, 2020, according to a later recall petition, former Board member Debbie Rose contacted the Superintendent and the Board to complain that Barts was using her private Facebook page to conduct school business. In response, Barts posted an update, saying that her page had been “archived and is not coming back,” a move made, she said, for anyone “who is trying to FOIA my old page.” Barts had another fascinating habit of publicly setting down in writing suggestions to constituents for how to work around FOIA. “Please continue to call me if you want to discuss items with discretion,” she’d write. “Emails are subject to FOIA.” All this was like wearing a “Honk if you like violating the Freedom of Information Act” bumper sticker on your forehead.

Eventually, on March 4, 2021, the School Board voted 7-0 to formally censure Barts. Fellow member Ian Serotkin said the vote was necessary because “nothing else we’ve tried has worked.” One week after this move, on March 11, 2021, she joined a thing called the Antiracist Parents of Loudoun County Facebook Group, a closed community that would eventually boast over 600 members. This is when all hell broke loose. Having refused to let herself be pushed around by transparency requirements, Barts now threw herself into the joys of opaque posting, right away helping spearhead the creation of a Nixonian enemies list of parents deemed insufficiently devoted to equity, school closures, and other causes.

Insanity like this probably goes on in every district in the country, but what made Loudoun different was the bizarro, M. Night Shyamalan-esque plot twist: the presence of five other Loudoun School Board members in the same Antiracist Parents group. Weirdly, many of the same people who publicly reprimanded Barts for ignoring open government laws were now essentially sitting with her in an exported quorum of the School Board in a locked Facebook group that, no big deal, was crowdsourcing a list of suppressive persons.

I won’t quote directly from the initial Barts post to the group, because that will spoil the punchline, but roughly speaking she expressed concern that opposition to the county’s policies was growing, and said people needed to “call out statements and actions that undermine our stated plan to end systemic racism.” In response, a woman writing under the name “Jen Morse” announced a “call for volunteers” who would gather information about political opponents they wanted to “silence,” raise money, and “infiltrate,” by which she meant:

Create fake online profiles and join these groups to collect and communicate information, hackers who can either shut down their websites or redirect them…

A former teacher added that they should “compile a document of all known actors and supporters.” There were more suggestions, and Barts later returned with a cyber-thumbs-up. “Thank you for the response to my posting this morning… Thank you for stepping up. Silence is complicity.”

News of the “enemies list” got out, as the Daily Wire broke a story revealing that Barts had even been questioned by the county Sheriff about it. The culty quality of the revealed Facebook exchanges was eye-opening. In one instance, the group elected to keep a woman on the register of suspect persons precisely because she hadn’t done anything, or as one parent put it, “I wouldn’t go so far as to take her off… from what I’ve seen she is very carefully neutral.”

Soon, a movement to recall Barts kicked into gear, led by Ian Prior of Fight for Schools. Prior had written an article in The Federalist in late 2020, among other things about the speech policy, and also addressed the Board. “I write this article, then I’d go to a school board meeting in October,” he says. “I just talked about the First Amendment. And that was it. I kind of checked out. What am I going to do, be a private investigator of Loudoun County Public Schools? I thought, maybe I’m overreacting.”

Then the story of the “list” came out. Prior turned out to be on it, but more alarmingly to him, so were a lot of other oddly random people. “Not everyone wrote op-eds in The Federalist,” he says. “Most of them just showed up at school board meetings, and opposed what the schools were doing. And most of these people actually were just going to try and get schools to open.” A local self-described “mouth-runner” named Mike Biron who’d had an extensive (and amusingly unfriendly) online repartee with Barts was asked to be the name on the recall petition. How hot were things in Loudoun? Biron didn’t need to go door-to-door for signatures.

“I left my garage door open with a table out there and put on Facebook, ‘Hey, I’m collecting signatures. I’m the main point of contact for Leesburg. Here’s my address,’” Biron recalls. “And people all week long were rolling up in front of my house.” They needed 1,176 signatures, and got 1,860. Biron describes being surprised by the diversity of the response to a drive that began in mid-May.

“There was quite a handful of people that came to sign the petition at my house that admitted they were Democrats, but felt like they got duped with the school board,” he says.

On May 25, 2021, a Christian gym teacher at Loudoun’s Leesburg elementary school named Byron “Tanner” Cross addressed the School Board. Referencing a 60 Minutes story entitled “Transgender Healthcare,” he voiced opposition to a planned measure called “policy 8040” that would punish teachers who intentionally refused to use preferred pronouns.

“I’m a teacher, but I serve God first, and I will not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl and vice versa because it’s against my religion,” Cross said. “It’s lying to a child, it’s abuse to a child, and it’s sinning against our God.”

Even some hardcore atheists raised an eyebrow when, in an echo of the planned speech ban from the previous fall, Cross was immediately placed on leave. When he sued with the intent of being reinstated, the Antiracist Parents Group sprang into action, with one member reminding all that “DISRUPTION OF SCHOOL ACTIVITIES can help keep him on leave,” which could take the form of phone calls and or emails to the school principal. Barts pitched in, noting that “we already passed a policy referring to gender expression,” pointing to the county’s “Equal Opportunity for Equitable, Safe and Inclusive Environment” rule banning “demeaning or otherwise harmful actions,” which apparently included verbally expressing an opinion against proposed government action.

Time and again, the real issue in Loudoun came down to the impatience of officials with criticism. This dynamic reached a breaking point on June 22nd, when a man named Scott Smith was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after a Board meeting. If you want to understand why the richest county in America soon after turned pitchfork, read the Washington Post account of the incident, entitled, “Loudoun school board cuts short public comment during unruly meeting; one arrested.”

The piece spent a lot of time talking about how “unruly” attendees violated “decorum,” implying throughout that the anger at the meeting was aimed at “initiatives meant to counteract… widespread racism,” or over the Board’s efforts to “protect the rights of LGBTQ students.” It ended with a quote from Board chair Brenda Sheridan about how she hoped these “politically motivated antics ought to end.”

It turned out, of course, that the man’s daughter had been sexually assaulted in a school bathroom. A viral video in which the words “My child was raped!” could clearly be heard soon circulated. The Post could be forgiven for not knowing the context of the story, details of which didn’t emerge until later. Still, pitching the scene essentially as an outburst of recalcitrant bigotry was typical of the lazy, knee-jerk assumptions dominating national coverage.

These habits looked especially grotesque after Smith’s arrest was cited by the National School Board Administration in a successful request to Attorney General Merrick Garland for help in combatting parental threats that, they said, were “equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism.”

Other misreads were inexplicable. The Post described the initial disruption of the June 22nd meeting as follows:

School board chair Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) warned the crowd several times to lower their voices and referenced a school board policy that requires members of the public speaking at school board meetings to “refrain from vulgarity, obscenities, profanity or other . . . breaches of respect for the dignity of the school board.” But the dozens of audience members did not listen…

This passage implied that the triggering incident involved vulgarity, obscenities, profanity, or other such “breaches of respect.” What actually happened: former State Senator Dick Black stood up in the public comment period to rail against the “enemies list,” the Tanner Cross incident, and the “equity” plan, saying, “I am disgusted by your bigotry and depravity!” This caused the crowd to break into, not vulgarities, but applause.

The problem was, the Board ages before had instituted a policy intended to speed up the public comments period. It mandated that, instead of applause, crowds could only use the “jazz hands” method of showing approval. Board chair Sheridan’s real repeated warning was, “Jazz hands only!”

Originally, this policy may have made sense, but in the context of a heated controversy around zany academic ideas, the injunction that this group of child-rearing adults express themselves using a form of speech popular on campuses sent the crowd over the edge. You can’t see it on Loudoun’s public site, because it’s been edited out of video of the June 22nd meeting, but when the Board tabled public comments over the jazz hands business, the crowd responded with a scene straight out of South Park’s I’m sorry, I thought this was America” bit, breaking into the national anthem in protest:

Twitter avatar for @JackPosobiec
AmericaFest Poso @JackPosobiec
When the Star Spangled Banner has become a dissident song, understand what part of the movie we are in

If the Washington Post story had been headlined, “Virginia Crowd Refuses Jazz Hands Order,” the country might have laughed at least a little, and some of the tension might have been defused. Things went the other way, of course.

From that horrible June meeting through Election Day on November 2nd, the worst thing that can happen to a place in America, happened to Loudoun County: it became the primary focus of the top figures in the national news media. This leads to the punchline. I intentionally wrote the first three parts of this story with just a few offhand mentions of the term, “Critical Race Theory,” in an effort to show how many other things the Loudoun tale was about: a sizable, suddenly disenfranchised Asian minority, a suspicious no-bid consulting contract, the elimination of midterms, finals, and standardized tests, a scandal-shot state Attorney General selling out his home county to try to save his political career, an ominous plan to ban political speech, the placing of residents on a secret enemies list (for everything from opposing school closures to defending Dr. Seuss), and the father of a rape victim essentially tabbed a domestic terrorist by the nation’s top law enforcement official, among many other things.

Loudoun was also very much a story about transformational changes on the blue side of American politics. Fifteen or twenty years ago, the Tanner Cross story would have had big-city ACLU lawyers stumbling over one another to come defend the controversial speech of a small-town teacher. In 2021, the ACLU wrote a brief in opposition to Cross. FOIA was another progressive legacy, having been created in response to the persecution of accused communists in the Eisenhower years, while standardized tests had been progressivism’s tool for helping Jews and Catholics break into the Ivy Leagues. What we called “progressives” once were now becoming something else, and the composition of their opposition was as a result also changing.

This saga was about so much more than Critical Race Theory, yet in the coming months of intense national spotlight between June and November, “CRT” became the national media’s sole explanation for everything that happened there. Invocation of the decades-old academic theory, papers like the Post explained, was the “new Trump,” the latest in fake news scammery (Barack Obama, in campaigning for McAuliffe, even described the controversies as “fake outrage”). It was all, the Post said, rightist hokum that had been “weaponized” by a population whose real problem was anxiety over an “influx of families of color,” since the county that was “85 percent White in 2000” was “barely 60 percent White in 2020.” Many outlets made this same point, by the way. Most failed to mention that the bulk of that demographic change came from the 750% rise during that time in the county’s Asian population, whose members of course made up a significant part of the opposition to the school policies. It was impossible to make it through a paragraph of most of these national accounts without hitting a bluntly provable lie.

Again, the point in spending so much time on the other parts of the story is to underscore that whole ranges of people here, of multiple races and political persuasions, would have been angry for a dozen serious reasons even if the term “Critical Race Theory” never came up. The punchline is that as a point of fact, the national press got even this wrong. The “Action Plan to Combat Systemic Racism” did contain heavy doses of CRT, or CRT-inspired thinking, or at least that’s what the plan’s own local advocates believed (Barts and the Antiracist Parents Group constantly referred to the “anti-CRT” enemy, for instance). It was also what many traditionally liberal press outlets initially reported, not that it particularly matters.

The significance of “Critical Race Theory” instead became that the national framing of the Loudoun story around the idea of it as a giant ruse, constructed around an imaginary racist phantasm, became the crowning insult that ended up altering the balance of power in the state. This in turn led to the boffo ending: total humiliation for everyone responsible, but too late to repair the fractured county.


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