he parent’s night out then told them how to file complaints about the teaching licenses of school board members and how they could ask to see the phone records of school board members.
She also told them that it would be helpful to work with “outside forces” to file open records requests to school systems for employee emails and curriculum plans that could show that inappropriate material was being taught in classrooms. This would let those outsiders “take some of the heat.”
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But there parent’s night out was one thing on the agenda that would get more people to act quickly than anything else: what to do about the Cherokee County School District’s decision to hire a woman named Cecelia Lewis.
“And when I got a text message from someone saying that this person was hired, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, where are my people?'” said Mandy Heda, a Cherokee County GOP precinct chair who introduced herself as the parent of four students in the district.
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Thomas, Kahaian, and Heda did not respond to multiple requests for comments or a list of questions about the points they brought up at the clubhouse meeting and elsewhere parent’s night out.
After parent’s night outasking the crowd to look at Lewis’s Maryland district, Heda wondered how Lewis could “leave that at the border” (she didn’t say what “that” was) and how the longtime educator could come “to Cherokee County and not want to change us.” Like Cherokee, the district where Lewis was a principal serves a majority-white county that voted for Trump in 2020, but Heda and others in the clubhouse didn’t seem to know this.
A man spoke up and said he had called the Cherokee County School District to find out “how they decided to hire Lewis.” He asked if there hadn’t been any local candidates parent’s night out.
Heda said, “You can’t tell me that you can’t find someone else who is qualified. And if you want her to be Black, that’s fine. But that’s not what this is about. This isn’t about the color of her skin. It’s about what she’ll bring to our district and what she’ll teach our kids.”
Later parent’s night out, someone in the crowd asked if Lewis’s arrival was a done deal, and several people said it was.
“We don’t have to accept it, right?” asked another man. “We can change that, right?” said the crowd as a whole.
“In some way or another,” said another woman.
A parent who went to the May 2021 clubhouse meeting and gave ProPublica a recording of it shows how quickly and efficiently conservative groups train communities to take on school districts in the name of ideas that aren’t even being taught in classrooms.
Parents all over the country have been given video lessons and toolkits by national groups, often through their local chapters, on how to spread their message about so-called school indoctrination. For example, Parents Defending Education has made “indoctrination maps” that show everything from a district celebrating “Black Lives Matter week” to one that lets students watch CNN Student News.
In the wake of 2020’s “summer of racial reckoning,” when anti-racist books soared to the top of bestseller lists and corporations recommitted to diversity programs, conservatives launched a counteroffensive against what they saw as an anti-white, anti-American, “woke” liberal agenda. As part of this effort, CRT, a 40-year-old theory that, contrary to what its critics say, is rarely, if ever, taught in K-1 classrooms,
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, San Diego found that anti-CRT efforts targeted nearly 900 school districts across the country from September 2020 to August 2021. Teachers and district equity officers surveyed and interviewed for the report “often described feeling attacked and at risk for discussing race or racism at all, or promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion in any way.”
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“Only one equity officer described a year without anti-“CRT” conflict parent’s night out,” the report also said.
One of the UCLA researchers parent’s night out, Cicely Bingener, who has taught elementary school for many years, said, “I feel very bad for my colleagues.”
ProPublica has found at least 14 public school employees across the country, six of them Black, who left their jobs in part because of anti-CRT efforts in 2021. Some of the teachers quit or had their contracts not renewed, while others were fired by school boards where more politically extreme members were elected.
Since January 2021 parent’s night out, legislatures in more than 40 states have proposed or passed bills and resolutions that would restrict teaching CRT or limit how teachers can talk about racism and sexism.
On June 3, 2021, the Board of Education did just that, joining the Board of Education in Utah as the first groups to pass resolutions of this kind. Georgia’s resolution said, “The United States of America is not a racist country, and the state of Georgia is not a racist state.”
In Cherokee County, which is mostly white and is 40 miles north of downtown Atlanta, the fight over CRT has made some people wonder if they still live in the same place they thought they did.
“These are our neighbors parent’s night out,” Leanne Etienne, a black mother of two Cherokee County students, said. “These are the parents of the kids my kids go to school with. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. You don’t know who to trust. You don’t feel safe.”
Lewis was confused after the official from the school district called her in April, but she stayed hopeful. She looked up CRT and decided it had nothing to do with her job. Then she got more calls.
In one, a district official asked Lewis if she had social media accounts. “No, just LinkedIn,” she said. Lewis hardly has a digital footprint. She has never posted anything on social media or made any professional statements about CRT or any other controversial topic. The official said that some of the people who were upset about her hiring said that a Twitter user with her name was posting Marxist ideas.
Around the same time, Lewis said that emails and handwritten letters started showing up at her school in Maryland. They called her a “Black Yankee” and said that her liberal ideas were not wanted. She kept only one of these letters, which was typed and had the return address “A Cherokee County Citizen.”
“In the end, they just said, ‘We don’t want you here, and we don’t want you to push us to find out what will happen if you come here,'” Lewis said.
Two days after the meeting at the clubhouse parent’s night out, on May 18, 2021, the Cherokee County schools communications chief and school board members got the first of about 100 form letters demanding that Lewis be fired. These letters came over the course of 48 hours.
Another parent wrote to a school board member about the latest census numbers for Cherokee County: “Did you know that 77.8 percent of the population is considered “white alone”? 7.7 percent are black, and 11.1 percent are Hispanic. Are we now living in a county that only cares about a few people?”
Lewis said she was ready and willing to talk to worried parents once she got to Georgia. “I just felt like there was a misunderstanding,” she said. “As soon as I could get there and really speak for myself, I thought everything would be fine.”
She also felt better knowing that school district officials were keeping in touch with her and reassuring her that they were keeping an eye on the situation and that everything would be fine “once they get to know you.”
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Lewis doesn’t usually talk about racism in her professional life. She said that until she got the Black Yankee email, she hadn’t experienced racism and was used to learning and working in mostly white spaces. She also remembered being surprised when someone from the district told her that her hiring was unusual because there weren’t many minority leaders working in the district parent’s night out.
“I didn’t think that was really going to happen in 2021,” Lewis said, pointing out that the district is close to Atlanta, which has a lot of black leaders and wealthy people. “That was probably just ignorance on my part, and I mean that in the purest sense of the word. I didn’t know parent’s night out.”
On May 20, 2021, one of Lewis’s soon-to-be coworkers called to say that people who didn’t like her being hired were saying they’d seen her in Cherokee County and were telling each other where she was. Lewis, however, was still in Maryland at the time.
That same day, after getting more complaints about Lewis and CRT through social media, emails, and phone calls, the district put up metal detectors and added more security at the county building where the school board meets.
Lewis soon got another call. This time, someone from the district’s leadership asked her if she was going to watch the board meeting that night. She said she hadn’t thought about it.
They said, “You should watch it parent’s night out.”