A Wisconsin school board president who received death threats over a pro-LGBTQ teacher training, which right-wing media sought to exploit for political purposes by claiming the district was disrespecting and ignoring parental rights, was reelected on Tuesday evening.
Voters chose to re-elect Eau Claire Area School Board President Tim Nordin and incumbent board member Marquell Johnson, and elect Stephanie Farrar to a first term on the seven-member school board.
All three had been endorsed by the local Democratic Party. According to unofficial results, Nordin bested the six-candidate field with more than 8,800 votes, with Farrar and Johnson garnering more than 8,400 votes.
Three candidates backed by Republicans — Nicole Everyone, Melissa Winter, and Corey Cronrath — who had campaigned, in part, on opposition to the current board’s dealings and its support of pro-LGBTQ policies, garnered between just over 6,900 votes and about 7,100 votes on Tuesday.
The three had particularly seized on a teacher training program that included a slide warning teachers that there could be consequences for involuntarily “outing” LGBTQ-identifying students, reports ABC affiliate WQOW.
The slide in question read: “Remember, parents are not entitled to know their kids’ identities. That knowledge must be earned. Teachers are often straddling this complex situation. In ECASD, our priority is supporting the student.”
Immediately, right-wing media began amplifying the story, sparking national news stories and outraged commentary on Fox News in order to fuel an ongoing narrative that “woke” ideology and LGBTQ topics are being pushed in schools behind parents’ backs as a way to “indoctrinate” students.
The timing of the controversy also played into Fox News’ seemingly wall-to-wall coverage of a Florida parental rights measure, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics, which prohibits LGBTQ instruction in kindergarten through third grade. Opponents of the law say it’s already being used to threaten students in older grades with discipline for acknowledging their identities or families, talking about LGBTQ issues or historical figures in class, or trying to form LGBTQ-supportive clubs like Gender & Sexuality Alliances, or GSAs.
As a result of the coverage, Nordin received a death threat in the form of an anonymous email from a user calling themselves “Kill All Marxist Teachers.” The author of that email stated: “I am going to kill you and shoot up your next school-board meeting for promoting the horrific, radical transgender agenda.” Eau Claire police are allegedly conducting an investigation into the sender of the email.
Nordin pushed back against his opponents’ claims, arguing that the slide’s language was being used to misrepresent the training, which was trying to warn teachers to tread carefully when dealing with LGBTQ children, as those who are involuntarily outed can either contemplate suicide or self-harm, or become targets of abuse or life-ending violence at the hands of unaccepting parents.
He called the threats of violence against the school board “unacceptable” and urged Eau Claire Area School District voters not to “cede to fear.”
The Eau Claire Area School Board race came amid an attempt by the Wisconsin GOP — emboldened by the success of “parental rights” messaging in other states, including Virginia and Florida — to nationalize school board races to gin up excitement among conservative voters and propel them to the polls as practice run of sorts for the national midterm elections held later this November.
Throughout the country, school board members are being threatened with violence, yelled at by parents and community members, and accused of trying to “groom” children. Confrontations, often requiring police to get involved, are being encouraged by conservative interest groups and right-wing candidates who have seized on parental discontent stemming from school lockdowns and virtual learning sessions that were imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parents who are more socially or politically conservative have become particularly incensed by efforts they view as trying to push so-called “critical race theory,” LGBTQ-related content, and other controversial books, issues, or topics, often without obtaining prior permission from parents before broaching such subjects.
Christian Phelps, a 28-year-old Eau Claire native who works as a digital organizer for the Wisconsin Public Education Network, a nonprofit advocacy group for Wisconsin public schools, told the Wisconsin Examiner that even though attempts to defeat incumbents failed in Eau Claire and smaller, exurban districts in western Wisconsin — while succeeding in suburban communities around Milwaukee — the city and the community have a good deal of “reflecting and repairing to do.”
Despite the election’s outcome, he said, “the fact that there’s this sensationalized coverage of students and their identities is really a bad thing already.”
“I’d hope that in a community like Eau Claire — and many others — the dust can settle,” Phelps said. “And people can once again view their local school district as something that is not subject to partisanship and pettiness and reset the conversation from a healthier starting point.”
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