On Thursday, November 4, I attended a meeting in Greenville, SC, of the group South Carolina Parents Involved in Education (SCPIE) which is one chapter of the national organization United States Parents Involved in Education (USPIE). Mother-daughter duo Sheri and April Few were the presenters, tasking themselves with convincing the audience to spy on public school educators to discover evidence of anti-American indoctrination: “Critical Race Theory” curriculum disguised as social-emotional learning and media and news literacy.
The mission and vision statement of USPIE emphasizes parental rights to control public school education free from federal mandates. In an interview, Few stated that “CRT is not a key part of our mission or vision. It is just one of many issues that have entered schools without the consent of local parents and communities. We do not attempt to define it, but we do help parents identify it as it manifests itself in public schools.” (One might wonder how they can identify its presence in schools without a definition, especially since the group seems to reject the established definition.)
This meeting was driven by strong emotions of fear related to a perceived effort currently in public schools to destroy American society and rebuild based on Marxist ideology, which was equated with social-emotional learning and media and news literacy (although Few answered in an interview that USPIE has not taken a position on the issues of media and news literacy).
Few stated, “Our concerns are with the SEL Programs being pedaled to schools, which are unproven, intrusive, and inappropriate for children and teachers. We believe that SEL will not improve children’s mental health or academic achievement.” USPIE has released a one-page position statement on SEL initiatives, namely asserting that SEL is being used as a “weapon for social justice,” is used to “distract from the fact that American public school children
are failing academically,” and conveys the message that “that education should focus less on knowledge of academic content and more on student attitudes, mindsets, values, and behaviors.” Without citing any sources, USPIE asserts “SEL will not improve children’s mental health or academic achievement” and is simply liberals’ “phony attempt to express concern for the mental health of students in SEL legislation.” At this particular meeting, Few used the words, “creating social justice warriors by using identity politics.”
Especially given what educators have sacrificed during the pandemic, including death, it’s particularly insulting to suggest that our concern for our students’ well-being is phony or aligned with a nefarious political agenda. When I invited my school’s mental health counselor to give a presentation in the school library during lunch, she discussed breathing deeply or using fidget toys as ways to cope with anxiety during school. Not exactly the evil indoctrination scenario presented by this group.
Perhaps the most visual example given in the PowerPoint presentation was this image showing flags on display at Berea High School. Few showed this image as an example of a school creating division by using the flags to represent the ethnicities of various current BHS students instead of promoting American unity by displaying the American flag only.
I asked her about the fact that Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, constructed disinformation related to appropriating CRT for right-wing political points. Few responded that “USPIE does not agree with your premise that there is evidence that ‘CRT hysteria’ exists or that it was ‘purposely manufactured’ by anyone. I am surprised you believe this, given the widespread eruption of parental concerns across the country and the specific nature of their concerns. If Mr. Rufo’s assertions motivated parents, most looked into their own districts and found evidence of racist teachings, which are not manufactured. I encourage you to check out videos of parents speaking to their school boards. The facts presented and the passion expressed are not manufactured and are not hysterical.”
Most school librarians would agree that being accused of purchasing pornography for their students is an expression of hysteria. It’s maddening to think that these groups view school librarians as secretly plotting to sexually exploit children, particularly since none of them ever seems to talk to actual school librarians.
During a Q&A session at the end of the meeting, an attendee asked how he could obtain a list of CRT books currently available in Greenville County public school libraries. Another audience member advised him to directly call media specialists and ask if they have certain books. Unfortunately, the situation in Greenville County related to book censorship is evolving, with school officials infringing on students’ First Amendment rights to read by pulling challenged books without following reconsideration policies and procedures.
Parents do not have the right to censor information other children can or cannot access, especially since the books in question are not pornographic. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has affirmed this position through several cases such as the 1982 Island Trees School District v. Pico case.
Justice Brennan wrote for the majority opinion: “Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’”
SCPIE advocated for South Carolina to withdraw from the National School Board Association because, according to Sheri Few, “NSBA asked the US AG to invoke the Patriot Act to classify parents who exercise their first amendment rights at school board meetings as ‘Domestic Terrorists.’ It appears they did this without a vote of their state chapters. We advocate for the right of parents to speak. However, we believe in local control, therefore, if parents are truly unruly or threatening toward anyone, the local law enforcement should be called. The use of the term ‘Domestic Terrorist’ was completely out of line and worthy of serious rebuke.” SC did indeed withdraw, as this letter shows. While NSBA did issue an apology for its use of wording, it is true that local school board meetings have become highly contentious and heated as people try to make decisions protecting the health, safety, and well-being of school staff and students during a pandemic, with some school board members experiencing threats of violence. This EdWeek article cites an example involving “three men who came to an Arizona elementary school with zip ties seeking to detain the principal.” The original letter sent to the Biden administration has been removed from the NSBA website.
These meetings are being held around the state and are hosted by a variety of conservative groups, like mySCGOP, which describes itself as “a collaborative non-profit organization committed to educating patriots across SC about how to get involved in their local political party to help drain the swamp in Columbia.”
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media. She is the recipient of the 2021 Media Literacy Teacher Award from the National Association for Media Literacy Education, the 2022 SCASL School Librarian of the Year, and the 2022 recipient of the Eli M. Oboler Memorial Award.