EDUCATION

Culture wars have taken hold of school board elections. Students say their well-being is at risk.

First, the adults fought. Now the kids are at war.

The country voted Tuesday in thousands of highly politicized school board races, which wereamplified by anger over COVID-19 protocols and how schools deal with race and culture. Many of the contests ended in conservative victories, highlighting a powerful strategy for Republicans heading into the 2022 midterm election.

For students, much more is at stake than politics.

Restrictions on lessons about race or bans on inclusive signage – moves often overseen by school boards that are shifting more conservative – have made school harder for kids of color and LGBTQ students, teens said.

The negative tenor of adult disagreements has produced tensions for all students. School board meetings over the past year have seen assaults, uncivil language and threats of violence toward board members.

In government class, “when we’re talking about things like political parties and their beliefs, there’s a tension," said Malak Saad, a senior at a predominantly white school in Loudoun County, Virginia. The heated school board debates there became a focal point of the Virginia governor's race, where Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

'They're trying to take that support away'

The conditions under which students learn affect their academic and emotional development, and research underscores the importance of learning experiences that celebrate diversityempathycollaboration and intellectual curiosity.

Decreasing signs of safety and inclusion make it harder for kids on the margins to learn, said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, the interim executive director of GLSEN, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ inclusion in schools.

"We know that all humans, but particularly young people, have to feel safe in their bodies and their hearts and their minds to be available to learning," Willingham-Jaggers said. "You can't learn if you feel like you're under threat."

That's why schools have made more concerted efforts to recognize and validate students from diverse backgrounds. Many conservative voters say acknowledging differences in race, sexual orientation and sexual identity prompts unnecessary divisions, surveys show

Students say signals of support and acceptance are important to them – and they worry about adults trying to take them away.

Outside Portland, Oregon, the Newberg School Board voted this fall to ban teachers from displaying inclusive signage such as Pride flags and Black Lives Matter posters. New conservative board members elected in the spring pushed for the changes.

"It’s really scary because there are kids out there who can’t go home to a loving family – the only place they have support is school," said Cooper Oakes, 15, a sophomore at Newberg High School who has been openly queer since seventh grade. "And now they’re trying to take that support away from us."

The Waukesha School District outside Milwaukee banned teachers from displaying inclusive signs in classrooms this fall on the grounds they're too political.

Afterward, a teen handed out small Pride flags as a show of support for LGBTQ students. Some classmates scribbled homophobic slurs on them before dropping them in hallways. Gay Straight Alliance members said club posters they put on their lockers have been repeatedly ripped off or similarly defaced.

"Kids feel empowered to do this stuff because they feel the school board is on their side," said Alex Bonell, 17, a junior at Waukesha West High School who identifies as queer. 

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The Waukesha School District outside Milwaukee banned teachers from displaying inclusive signs in classrooms.

Hard to focus on schoolwork, students say

Waukesha's school board tilted more conservative after two members supported by Republicans won seats in April.

"The whole issue has become a big deal precisely because we're fighting back against a rule change, and then kids on the other side want to fight back against us," said Kailey Williams, 17, from Waukesha West who is multiracial and queer.

Pride flags and Black Lives Matter posters are not political signs, Williams said, and taking them down does not imply the school is inherently a safe space for everyone.

Pride flags in classes made Isabella Arndt, 16, a junior at Waukesha West, feel safe and accepted starting high school as a freshman.

Today, Arndt said, the situation makes her feel defeated. She sought out a counselor to talk about it.  

Bonell said the signs helped normalize what LGBTQ students go through, especially when it comes to bullying.

"I guess I didn't realize how much they meant until they were gone," Bonell said.

Reed Mueller, 16, a sophomore class president at Waukesha South High School, is a straight ally who said the ban on inclusive signs is unjust. He's spoken twice about the issue at school board meetings.

"Diversity and inclusion efforts are integral to any school," he said.

When students have the courage to publicly tell adults how policies make them feel, he said, "it's up to the school board to listen to them, and it's up to parents to vote out school board members who do not."

Wisconsin's school board elections are normally held in spring, but tension around critical race theory and equity issues is so high that the Mequon-Thiensville school board in a Milwaukee suburb held a school board recall election Tuesday. 

A slate of four conservative candidates hoped to oust sitting members they said are too leftist and lax at addressing the district's academic deficiencies. None of those recalls were successful.

How other candidates fared:Critical race theory, mask mandates dominate 2021 school board elections — is 2022 next?

Record school board candidates

In Loudoun County, Virginia, the school board's policy around transgender rights became a flashpoint in the governor's race. Conservatives accused the school board of covering up a sexual assault of a girl in a bathroom – by a boy in a skirt, according to the victim's father – to advance a political agenda of inclusivity.

Loudoun's transgender policy – which, in accordance with state requirements, lets students choose the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity – has been one of many hot button issues that resulted in threats and harassment to school board members. 

The victim's father was arrested at a Loudoun County school board meeting in June after swearing at another person and clenching his fist at her. He was convicted of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, according to media reports.

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The student accused of rape was found guilty of two charges on Oct. 25. The person's gender identity hasn’t been confirmed by authorities, and the incident occurred before the gender-inclusive policy went into effect.

Despite conservative fervor over the situation, Loudoun County voted for McAuliffe, a former Democratic governor, by double-digits. Still, Youngkin's message – which included parental control of schools and attacking the progressive-led inclusivity initiatives – clearly resonated with voters across Virginia. Just a year ago, President Joe Biden won the state by 10 points. 

Other normally low-energy school board races were catalyzed by newcomer candidates and support from national political groups, especially Republicans hoping to set the stage for the 2022 midterm elections

In Pennsylvania, the Central York School District had 12 candidates campaigning for six open seats. Republicans won four of those seats in unofficial results. Central York had banned educational resources by and about people of color, a policy the board retracted this fall

In Ohio, the number of candidates running for school board increased more than 50% over the figure from 2017. Many newcomers this fall had Republican Party support to push back against school mask mandates, critical race theory and policies that allow transgender students to compete on teams that match their gender identity. One candidate in the crowded GOP primary to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman even used $50,000 to help conservative school board candidates, and another Senate contender said he had personally donated to 73 school board races.

"Moms and dads outraged over unconstitutional mask and vaccine mandates and Critical Race Theory in our schools have led a political awakening in our country, and I am proud to stand with them in this fight,” said Senate candidate Jane Timken, a former state GOP chairwoman, in a statement Wednesday. “Taking back our country starts with taking back our classrooms."

There's common ground amid all the vitriol at school board meetings and the campaigns that led up to Tuesday's races, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

On the right, there's more support than it seems for teaching complex history and recommending diverse authors, he said. 

"A lot of people are just talking past each other and mischaracterizing what the other side is trying to do," he said.

Corrections: A previous version of this story did not give updated information about the Loudoun County bathroom assault. The student accused of rape was found guilty of two charges on Oct. 25. Previous versions also incorrectly characterized the number of school board candidates in Ohio. The number of people running increased more than 50% over 2017 figures.

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or erin.richards@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.