Area school districts are in the crosshairs for a growing number of parents angry over masks, critical race theory, social-emotional learning and other issues they see as a threat to their rights and their children. Collectively, their loose affiliation threatens to disrupt and harm schools just as educators begin the tough work of addressing the pandemic's effects on learning.
An event called the Liberty Empowerment Summit drew a crowd to a New Haven venue last month, where booths promoted the Indiana Freedom Coalition (“Stand together against tyranny through collaboration, education, mobilization, and community involvement,” according to a description on its Facebook page), Hoosiers for Medical Freedom (“We are entitled to decide what medical procedures we consent to as it pertains to our bodies and the bodies of our children”) and Liberty Defense (“focuses on the education of constitutional principles and the promotion of conservative leaders”). But the attraction was a pitch for Purple for Parents Indiana.
Purple for Parents began in Arizona as backlash against the Red for Ed movement in support of public schools, according to Arizona PBS. The former group reportedly was an offshoot to Patriot Movement Arizona, identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but it now appears to be spreading as the vehicle for anyone with a grievance against teachers, their unions and public schools.
Purple for Parents Indiana has a mailing address at Winona Lake. Its CEO, according to its nonprofit filing with the Indiana Secretary of State's office, is Jennifer McWilliams, who spoke at the New Haven meeting. She told the Liberty Empowerment audience she was fired from her job as a reading interventionist at Frankton-Lapel Community Schools over a Facebook post criticizing social-emotional learning, which she described as critical race theory in disguise. She accuses Indiana schools of “brainwashing” children to instill a “radical agenda.”
Social and emotional learning, as defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, is “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
As one school leader suggests, these are positive traits most parents support.
But Purple for Parents Indiana views it as “indoctrination & Sexualization [sic] of children in the public education system,” according to the organization's Facebook page, which levels attacks on Indiana schools as promoting pedophilia, the Chinese Communist Party and Marxism. Multiple videos on the site feature parents or community members challenging their local schools. In one, an East Allen County Schools parent quotes from explicit books she said were found in all of the schools, prompting board President Todd Buckmaster to ask the woman to watch her language.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Buckmaster said the school board has reached out to the parent to explain the process for challenging books used by the district. When questions are raised about content, a five-member parent and faculty committee reviews the material and files a report with the administration.
“We don't want to take things out of context; we also don't want garbage,” Buckmaster said.
In a tense meeting last week, board members at Carmel Clay Schools in Hamilton County heard Purple for Parents supporters challenge the same books targeted at the East Allen meeting. The Carmel meeting was disrupted when a man standing at the back of the room dropped a handgun on the floor. Police officers quickly handcuffed him and escorted him from the room.
Buckmaster lamented the divisive approach school boards are beginning to witness across the state and said East Allen has had parents from other districts “coming in trying to stir things up.”
“The sad thing is that it often throws parents against the school boards,” he said. “East Allen County Schools has a really conservative school board and we are there because we want to serve the general public; it's always best when we can work together.”
Purple for Parents Indiana does not appear interested in working together. Its approach is to frighten and anger parents and to disrupt democratically elected school boards. Public school parents and supporters should be aware of the outside agitators targeting their local schools and step up to challenge them.