Metro Weekly

‘Teacher of the Year’ Flees Idaho After Being Harassed

A right-wing smear campaign led Idaho's 2023 Teacher of the Year to flee the state after she was attacked for pro-LGBTQ social media posts.

School classroom – Photo: Kohji Asakawa, via Pixabay

Last September, Karen Lauritzen, a fourth-grade teacher with over two decades of experience, was named the 2023 Idaho Teacher of the Year. She earned accolades from then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, a Republican first elected in 2014 who has served under two Republican governors.

“Karen’s talents go beyond a mastery of teaching,” Ybarra said then. “She has created tremendous connections with her students and the wider school community, and she excels in the art of building classroom relationships that involve not only her students but also their educational network, from parents to peers.”

But being honored with the award placed Lauritzen under intense scrutiny from right-wing foes of public education, who — following a time-tested approach of attacking any public servant who doesn’t embrace or openly espouse a Christian nationalist ideology — accused her, without evidence, of “indoctrinating” children with left-wing propaganda.

The harassment and persecution from right-wing ideologues was so relentless, it forced Lauritzen to quit her job and flee the state.

Conservative news outlets were particularly harsh on Lauritzen, seizing on social media posts she’d made expressing support for LGBTQ rights and the Movement for Black Lives.

The right-wing Idaho Tribune accused Lauritzen of being a “left-wing activist” who “follows drag queens on social media, promotes LGBT events, promotes transgenderism, Black Lives Matter, and is active in local politics, promoting liberal ideology.”

The outlet also criticized her for liking posts about “social and emotional learning” — a style of learning which has become a bogeyman among conservatives for promoting self-awareness, decision-making, and interpersonal skills — which it classified as “left-wing ideology.”

The conservative website Action Idaho went further, speculating that Lauritzen was pushing a pro-LGBTQ agenda on her students despite a school district policy restricting teachers from providing instruction or discussion of sexuality or sexual orientation.

“Would Lauritzen be happy to cultivate transgender ideologies among your children? Probably,” Idaho Action wrote. “She is getting her Ph.D. in advanced education at University of Idaho, no doubt learning all the latest trends in queer theory and social and emotional learning.”

The press led parents in her rural community in western Idaho to email her and accuse her of including inappropriate content in her lessons.

She even faced criticism and complaints from parents who objected to her teaching about other cultures — including mentioning that some cultures eat insects — and even criticized her for mentioning the existence of the United Nations.

“When it’s, ‘My kid can’t do this because it’s propaganda,’ and ‘My kid can’t do that because we don’t believe in the United Nations,’ it’s like, what? It’s not Santa Claus, what do you mean you don’t believe in it?” Lauritzen told The Boston Globe, which reported on the increasing politicization of the teaching field.

“Even if I have certain beliefs myself, that does not mean that I teach kids. It’s not my job to ‘indoctrinate’ or make kids little versions of myself,” Lauritzen said. “It’s to make kids into the best versions of themselves.”

Lauritzen maintains the only fault parents could possibly find with her had nothing to do with what she taught in the classroom, but, rather, her personal political beliefs. The harassment and second-guessing from parents was so severe — and she received so little institutional support — that she decided to take a job at a university in Illinois. 

“I should have felt celebrated and should have felt like this is a great year,” she told the Globe. “And honestly, it was one of the toughest years I have ever had teaching, not only with my community but with parents questioning every decision I made as well.”

Lauritzen’s departure highlights a broader issue of the increasing politicization of schools and right-wing activists’ unyielding attacks on members of the teaching profession, which has left some districts scrambling to replace teachers who seek employment elsewhere due to a lack of institutional support and a coordinated campaign, funded by dark money groups, aimed at undermining the public education system or dismantling it altogether.

Lauritzen’s story of a distinguished educational honor turning into a nightmare was echoed in Kentucky, where Willie Carver, the state’s 2022 Teacher of the Year award winner, was compelled to quit and seek employment at the University of Kentucky after being attacked for right-wingers and colleagues for being an openly gay man. 

Some states have also politicized the state Teacher of the Year competitions.

In Arkansas, applicants must praise an education law signed by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and explain how its prohibitions on “critical race theory” and LGBTQ content have positively impacted students.

In Georgia, applicants wishing to win the honor are prohibited from “voicing political views on any platform.”

Chris Dier, the 2020 Louisiana Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the national Teacher of the Year competition, said he received death threats over social media for speaking out against legislation that seeks to gag teachers in the name of “anti-wokeness.”

“It’s a wild time to teach,” Dier told the Globe. “People just signed up to teach. Now all of a sudden I’m engaged in some existential battle.”

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