I honestly can't believe anyone in America would want to be a public schoolteacher in 2021. Every single day you have a bullseye on your back, even in states like California.
This fall, a pair of middle school teachers from the Salinas Valley traveled to Palm Springs for the California Teachers Association’s annual LGBTQ+ Issues Conference. There, on a Saturday afternoon, Lori Caldeira and Kelly Baraki spoke to a few dozen people about a subject they knew well: the difficulty of running a GSA, or gay-straight alliance, in a socially conservative community.
Speaking about recruiting students, Baraki said, “When we were doing our virtual learning — we totally stalked what they were doing on Google, when they weren’t doing schoolwork. One of them was Googling ‘Trans Day of Visibility.’ And we’re like, ‘Check.’ We’re going to invite that kid when we get back on campus.”
Shortly after the October conference, a surreptitious recording of the presentation was handed to a conservative writer known for asserting that transgender adolescents are part of a dangerous “craze.” She published a story Nov. 18 headlined “How Activist Teachers Recruit Kids,” criticizing Caldeira and Baraki for actions they had seen as proper: keeping club members’ identities confidential from parents and finding a couple of potential members by viewing their online activity in class.
One day after the article came out, Caldeira and Baraki’s presentation on the difficulties of running their GSA would prove prophetic: Leaders of the Spreckels Union School District suspended the club. Four days later, the district opened an investigation and placed the teachers on administrative leave.
The controversy has roiled the small district south of Salinas and east of Monterey, alarming advocates for LGBTQ youth and marking one of a number of recent incidents in which influential conservative voices have forced the hands of local officials.
The episode raises broader questions about educators’ growing ability to monitor what students do online, which accelerated during the pandemic, and about what responsibility schools have to provide safe spaces such as gay-straight alliances for LGBTQ students who may not have support from peers and parents.
Caldeira and Baraki, who said they have received violent threats since the story went viral in some circles, said they are worried about their students. Both teach at Buena Vista Middle School, which has an enrollment of around 360.
“Can you imagine? Seriously, we have kids in our club right now who are out at school, (but) they’re not out at home. The only two teachers that they have ever spoken to have been taken away,” said Caldeira, her voice and hands shaking as she spoke at a Monterey coffee shop in her first interview since the district suspended the GSA. “I’m sure they’re terrified, because where are they going to go, and who are they going to talk to, you know?”
Caldeira said the club — called UBU (You Be You) — had for more than six years allowed students to ask questions they might not be ready to bring up with their families.
“Our conversations were always student-led, which is why they frequently surrounded LGBTQ topics. Because the kids have questions,” she said. “Their parents think we start that conversation, but we don’t. TikTok starts it, Snapchat starts it, Instagram starts it or their classmates start it, and then we just try to answer the questions as honestly and fairly as we can.”
The district has launched a third-party investigation into the actions of the teachers. Officials declined to be interviewed by The Chronicle, but Superintendent Eric Tarallo, school board President Steve McDougall and Buena Vista Principal Kate Pagaran released a statement Nov. 19 apologizing to parents, while promising that the district would exert tighter control over student clubs and bar teachers from “monitoring students’ online activity for any non-academic purposes.”
At the school board’s Dec. 15 meeting, member Michael Scott said, “I am hopeful a third-party investigation will provide a clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding the UBU club and how it was run, that any subsequent action should be responsive to the values, beliefs and priorities of the Spreckels community.”
The Palm Springs presentation by Caldeira and Baraki was similar in many ways to talks they’ve given for four or five years, they said. For an hour and 15 minutes, they spoke informally to about 40 people.
Caldeira, who in 2017 won an award for her work with special-needs students, said she requested the presentation not be recorded. “We do deal with middle schoolers,” she said, “and it can be sensitive content at times.”
But the secret audio made its way to Abigail Shrier, author of “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” which has been criticized as unscientific and inflammatory. On Nov. 18, she published the first of four stories about the Spreckels teachers on her Substack newsletter, The Truth Fairy, where she has argued that transgender women “are not women” and that gender-affirming school policies abuse parents’ rights.
Shrier focused heavily on Baraki’s comment about seeing a student’s Google search for “Trans Day of Visibility,” characterizing this as “surveillance” of potential recruits into the GSA.
The Chronicle could not obtain audio of the presentation, but Caldeira confirmed she and Baraki had been accurately quoted by Shrier. However, she said many of the comments were misconstrued and taken out of context.
One, cancel culture, quite literally. The right sure does love destroying people for "wrongthink" and it's why they project so much onto the left.
Two, public schoolteachers in 2021 are targets. Republicans want public schoolteachers gone because they want public schools gone. Let's not overlook this.
Three, the only thing the right wants more than destroying teachers is destroying LGBTQ+ kids, who shouldn't exist in their worldview. At all.
Four, your local MAGA Cultists are taking over your neighborhood school board, city council, county commission, and sheriff's office while you "skip voting this year".
Republicans across America are pressing local jurisdictions and state lawmakers to make typically sleepy school board races into politicized, partisan elections in an attempt to gain more statewide control and swing them to victory in the 2022 midterms.
Tennessee lawmakers in October approved a measure that allows school board candidates to list their party affiliation on the ballot. Arizona and Missouri legislators are weighing similar proposals. And GOP lawmakers in Florida will push a measure in an upcoming legislative session that would pave the way for partisan school board races statewide, potentially creating new primary elections that could further inflame the debate about how to teach kids.
The issue is about to spread to other states: The center-right American Enterprise Institute is urging conservatives to “strongly consider” allowing partisan affiliations to appear on ballots next to school board candidates’ names, as part of broader efforts to boost voter turnout for the contests. A coalition of conservative leaders — including representatives of Heritage Foundation, Manhattan Institute and Kenneth Marcus, the Education Department civil rights chief under former Secretary Betsy DeVos — have separately called for on-cycle school board elections as part of sweeping efforts to “end critical race theory in schools.”
In Florida, school boards are among the last elected officials who blocked policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis. If Republicans succeed in pushing the state to strip school board elections of their nonpartisan status and gain more representation on school boards, they could break the last holdouts who regularly defy the governor.
“We’re out there trying to elect good conservatives that will follow essentially the governor’s mission as it relates to education,” said Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota), the state Senate’s education chair who also leads the Republican Party of Florida.
“When you have a leader like DeSantis come out and say that there should be no lockdowns, if you have a Republican elected official, you would think they would probably give him the consideration and probably go along with what he asked.
The latest attempts for making school board races partisan affairs come as education has been thrust into the spotlight amid the pandemic and the high profile victory of Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, who campaigned on a promise to give parents more say in their kids’ education. It also comes as other crucial battleground issues are bubbling up in education, including classroom lessons on history and race — a subject that has emerged as a boogeyman for GOP policymakers in numerous states who are condemning efforts to teach young people about the nation’s history of discrimination.
With all of these policies converging, there have been clear disconnects among state and local leaders, and even parents, over how to educate their children. Republicans are openly embracing parental rights as a key factor shaping policy in D.C. and many statehouses — seen in proposals to strengthen protections for parents against schools.
“There’s a major underestimation nationwide, even on the political side, that these parents are really frustrated,” said Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota County school board member who is also the wife of the Florida GOP vice chair.
The surburban moms who ditched Trump in 2018 are back with a vengeance, because all of them know better than every educator in the state what their child really needs, and they are on the front lines of fascism, leading the way.
The wildfire is already out of control, and we need everyone involved.
Run for local office if you have the resources, I beg of you.