Featured photos: People outside of the Arkansas state capitol protesting the admission of the “Little Rock Nine” to Central High School in 1959 on the left. Take Back Our Schools members protesting critical race theory at the June 17 school board meeting on the right.
In recent months, messages and actions by a vocal group of conservatives directed at Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras have become increasingly more threatening, according to some school board members and a sample of messages obtained by Triad City Beat through a public records request.
On June 10, during a regular school board meeting, members of Take Back Our Schools gathered outside of the school district offices and began banging on the windows of the building. The members, part of a local conservative coalition of parents and community members who have advocated for an increase in school resource officers, protested an appeals process for suspensions and now oppose critical race theory, pushed through the hedges that flank the outside of the office and pressed their signs against the windows, prompting one district administrator and a police officer to ask them to step back. As they protested, they used a megaphone to project their grievances.
“Open up the meetings!”
“Take our power back!”
“You work for us!”
On June 17, a smaller group returned with Stephanie Mitchell, a local mother, at the helm. During the protest, Mitchell and others argued that the school board was keeping parents out of the meetings and shutting down free speech; the board voted that day to reopen meetings to the public starting in July. The meetings had been conducted virtually and livestreamed for much of 2020 and half of 2021 due to the pandemic, allowing for members of the public to submit comments online.
Whatever the board’s decision, much of the anger by the group has been directed towards Contreras, who has been the district’s superintendent since 2016.
“The problem is that she thinks that she is president and CEO,” Mitchell said. “What she has forgotten is that she is an employee that can be fired. The problem is that the school board has given all of their authority to her so they couldn’t fire her even if they wanted to.”
Contreras received an increase in temporary authorization from the school board back in March 2020, because of special circumstances brought upon by the pandemic. During the March 13, 2020 meeting, the school board voted unanimously to allow Contreras to “act as expeditiously necessary to protect the health and welfare of students and staff of Guilford County Schools” by “temporarily [waiving] board policies allowing the district to implement appropriate response measures related to COVID-19.”
Nora Carr, chief of staff for the school district, told TCB that Contreras has not used her emergency authority once during the pandemic. Carr also noted that the school board has the authority to vote on whether or not to rescind those powers at any time.
“I think that that mythology is part of an orchestrated misinformation campaign,” Carr said about Take Back Our Schools’ notion that Contreras is acting as a dictator.
She also noted that many school districts around the state, not just Guilford County, enacted similar emergency authorization for superintendents last year.
At-large board member Winston McGregor and District 3 member Pat Tillman told TCB the increase in authority does not change Contreras’ contract, which was renewed in 2019 for the next four years. It also does not prevent the school board, which determines her job status, from terminating her contract.
“The legal authority of a duly elected school board is still intact,” Tillman said. “That still stays and remains. School boards hire and fire superintendents; that’s how it is.”
McGregor stated that there is broad support for Contreras amongst a majority of the board members and that she has the respect of many in the city. T. Diane Bellamy-Small of District 1 who has served on the board since 2016, said she doesn’t see why there would be any mention of firing Contreras.
“Why would there be?” Bellamy-Small asked. “If you look at her performance record, she has knocked it out of the record during the pandemic.”
Contreras was named Superintendent of the Year by the North Carolina PTA in 2019 and a North Carolina Regional Superintendent of the Year last year. In early 2020, she was also a finalist to be picked as President Joe Biden’s education secretary. The position eventually went to now-secretary Miguel Cardona.
How conservatives are using critical race theory to galvanize local communities
During the protest outside of the building on June 17, the group of mostly white parents held signs that read, “Open up the meetings” and “You work for us,” which addressed the fact that the meetings hadn’t yet been physically opened up to the public yet. However, at least one parent held a sign that read, “No CRT.”
CRT, or critical race theory, dates back to the 1970s, a platform acknowledging that racism is systemic, institutional and pervades virtually every aspect of American society. After the publication of the New York Times’ 1619 Project led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2019, Republicans conflated the two and began attacking the project as “propaganda” and passing legislation prohibiting the teaching of the project in K-12 schools. And in March, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson launched a new initiative called “FACTS” in which those concerned about critical race theory being taught in schools could submit grievances via an online form.
Despite loud conservative calls against CRT, it is widely accepted that the teaching of critical race theory doesn’t take place in K-12 schools. According to Education Week, an online news resource about K-12 education, because critical race theory is more of a framework and lens rather than specific teachings, “much scholarship on CRT is written in academic language or published in journals not easily accessible to K-12 teachers.”
Even so, lawmakers in states around the country, including North Carolina, have introduced bills that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom. Based on Education Week’s analysis, 25 states have introduced such bills with eight states having enacted bans.
In NC, HB324, introduced in mid-March, passed the House 66-48 — with all Republican support and none from Democrats — in May and is now in Senate committee. The bill, also called “Ensuring Dignity and Nondiscrimination in Schools,” would prevent teachers from promoting certain concepts related to race or sex. One of the concepts prohibited by the bill reads as follows: “That the belief that the United States is a meritocracy is an inherently racist or sexist belief, or that the United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.”
Education Week writes that bills such as this one are “so vaguely written that it’s unclear what they will affirmatively cover” and that they “could have a chilling effect on teachers who might self-censor their own lessons out of concern for parent or administrator complaints.”
Tillman, a Republican member of the school board, stated clearly that critical race theory is not taught in Guilford County Schools.
“CRT is not in our district,” he said. “It’s not a part of the curriculum…. I think there’s been a lot of discussion about it, but the facts are it’s not part of our curriculum.”
Still, during the June 17 protests outside of the Guilford County school board, many parents expressed their concerns about CRT being taught in schools. One white protester who didn’t wish to be named claimed that antifa, a left-wing, anti-racist political movement which is often used as a scapegoat by conservative media outlets, was behind the push for critical race theory in schools.
“I think it’s teaching hate, it’s critical race theory and it’s teaching children to hate each other because of the color of their skin,” she said during the protest. “That’s why we have such poor situations in our streets with antifa…. It’s just what it is. We have people out in the streets fighting because they hate each other for nothing because the mainstream media has preached that to them along with higher education.”
Khem Irby, the school board member for District 6, who has served since 2018, said she wonders what Take Back Our Schools, which is mostly comprised of white parents, is trying to achieve.
“You say you’re advocating for all children and you’re a predominantly white group,” Irby said. “Who are you really advocating for?”
The parents and concerned community members who have been protesting outside of the Guilford County School board meetings for weeks are not alone. According to reporting by NBC News, the debate around critical race theory is spreading across the country as high-profile Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speak out against it and further galvanize their base. Conservative media outlets such as Fox News have also spotlighted the issue, further elevating the conflict in the national sphere.
In September, Tucker Carlson invited Elana Yaron Fishbein, a mother who had been fighting against CRT in the suburbs of Philadelphia, onto his show, giving her and her group, No Left Turn in Education, a spotlight. Since then, Fishbein’s group has grown to 30 chapters in 23, according to the NBC report. In an op-ed for Real Clear Politics, a right-wing conservative news outlet, former President Donald Trump stated that “students are being subjected to a new curriculum designed to brainwash them.”
And as superintendents and school boards across the country deal with the backlash created by the conservative right around critical race theory, Guilford County’s Black, female superintendent is dealing with increasingly harmful threats.
CRT and the targeting of a Black, female superintendent
Since her hiring in 2016, Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras has faced her share of criticism and hate. Last year, before the pandemic, parents expressed outrage when the district allowed students to be bussed to early-voting sites, citing a liberal agenda and targeting Contreras. A few months later when the decision was made to postpone graduations and host them virtually, the threats came in again, and prompted a security detail for Contreras, according to school board member Winston McGregor. With the increasing debate around critical race theory, the threats against the school board in general and Contreras specifically, have escalated, McGregor said. The protesters’ conduct at the June 10 meeting solidified McGregor’s feeling that the rhetoric should not to be taken lightly, according to McGregor.
“I have been on the board since 2018,” McGregor wrote in a text to TCB. “I have been attending meetings since 2013. While there have been protests outside before, they always wrapped up before meetings and of course there have been times when speakers from the floor and those seated were very passionate. But I have never seen or interacted with the kind of anger and vitriol that we saw that night. They express a kind of contempt that feels dangerous, even reckless. In light of events of the past year — the plot against the Michigan governor, the siege of the Capitol, escalating gun violence, I am very aware that that kind of contempt can turn destructive quickly. It is scary.”
At least one protester outside of the school board meeting on June 17 appeared to admit that they had been at the Jan. 6 rally at the Capitol.
Protester Myra Schloemer was speaking into a megaphone before the meeting and advocated for acquiring lawyers for the group in case any of them were arrested for protesting.
“If you have any loose change anywhere, we would try to get two or three lawyers… for various things,” Schloemer said. “If one of us ends up in jail to help get out because of these people. I mean, we were there on the 6th and the FBI hasn’t found us yet so… any one of us could experience this.”
Later, when asked what she meant by “the 6th,” Schloemer declined to elaborate but said she opposed CRT and that she felt like Contreras had “all of the power.”
Schloemer is not alone in her antipathy towards Contreras.
A trove of messages sent through the school district’s “Let’s Talk” messaging program acquired by TCB through a public records request range from grievances about CRT to direct threats to Contreras. Many of the messages are racist in nature. To view the sample of messages, download the documents here and here.
On June 14, an individual named Bob Lee sent a message with the subject line, “Emergency power lie.” In his message, he targeted Contreras and then shifted blame to the school board as a whole.
“It is high time authoritarian tyrants be removed and held criminally liable for the reign of anti American, anti family stances they have chosen,” wrote Lee. “It is far past the point of reminding the superintendent that she is a PUBLIC servant who [can] and WILL answer to her constituents, the PUBLIC. If this doesn’t happen immediately she should resign or be removed from her position. Get your fucking shit together, quit hiding like the fucking cowards you have proven yourselves to be. SHAME ON YOU ALL.”
Another message from John Dawson on June 13 also called for Contreras’ termination. “MS. CONTRERAS, WHY ARE YOU NOT ALLOWING PARENTS INTO BOARD MEETINGS?? WHAT ARE YOU HIDING?? WHAT KIND OF A FAR LEFT, ANTI-WHITE RACIST, INDOCTRINATION GULAG ARE YOU RUNNING? ARE YOU PUSHING ANTI-WHITE CRITICAL RACE THEORY TO HAVE WHITE STUDENTS FEEL GUILTY ABOUT THEIR SKIN COLOR? ARE YOU AN AFICIONADO OF BLM THUGS? HOPEFULLY A PETITON WILL BE CIRCULATED TO TERMINATE YOUR EMPLOYMENT.”
Another message from a Brian Jenkins advocated for a “Thank You White People Day.”
“Due to all the inaccurate information about White [sic] people (the most generous race in the world), perhaps Guilford County Schools can create a ‘Thank You White People Day’ to celebrate their enormous generosity,” Jenkins wrote. “They allowed millions of poor non-White immigrants (expensive) from all over the world to immigrate to their country and enjoy a high standard of living even though they’re going to become a minority in the United States.”
Still, other messages appear to stop just short of threatening physical harm.
“Dear Sir or Mam [sic], I have several questions about our school board,” wrote Clark Higgins on June 16. “1. Why are a bunch of single cat ladies allowed to have anything to do with kids? 2. How did the lowest IQ demographics in the world end up making up the majority of the school board? 3. How is it our schools are failed, but you people keep doubling down on this critical hood rat theory garbage? 4. How is it that people who have criminal backgrounds and connections to sex offenders have made it on to school board? Please answer these questions and fire yourselves or else.”
None of the school board members are listed on the state sex offender registry.
The email address for Higgins is [email protected] As TCB has reported extensively, the Proud Boys are far-right, self-described “Western chauvinist” outfit that has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. While members of the group are varied, the Proud Boys have been associated with and have coordinated violent incidents such as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. From 2017 in which anti-racist protester Heather Heyer was killed. Ten Proud Boys were also charged with assault in Oct. 2018 after attacking anti-fascist activists in New York City and most recently, members have faced charges related to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Given these facts, McGregor said that she’s increasingly concerned for the superintendent’s safety and wellbeing.
“I think it’s unethical to incite vitriol,” McGregor said. “This is happening in select other districts where there are strong women-of-color leadership. There are outside agitators who are tied to other extreme activity. You see it through fake email accounts and fake news stories and manufactured crises.”
One fake news story that elevated the group’s local protests came in the form of a YouTube video by the Next News Network headed by Gary S. Franchi Jr. out of Illinois. The channel, which has about 2 million subscribers, is a conservative, conspiracy content channel that churns out fake stories. In the past, Franchi has posted videos claiming that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease and that antifa is to blame for the wildfires on the West Coast. Both claims have been debunked by multiple outlets. On June 15, Franchi posted a video entitled, “NC Superintendent Shuts Out Parents from School Board Meeting — LOOK What Happens Next.”
In the video, which runs about five and a half minutes long, Franchi alleges that critical race theory is being pushed into schools and that members of Take Back Our Schools were kept out of the school board meeting. In reality, the school board meetings are, and have been public; they just have been live-streamed and members of the public have been able to submit comments online. During the video, Franchi runs a clip from a WFMY News 2 report in which Contreras states that opening up the physical space again is not up to her, but up to the school board to which Franchi scoffs, “Yeah right. Ah yeah, she’s just pushing it off, pushing it off. Oh my goodness, you see how these people deflect?”
After the clip, Franchi makes the claim that the school board was keeping parents out because they didn’t want to hear pushback about critical race theory.
“It’s all to control the narrative,” Franchi said. “What they want to do is brainwash our children to hate this country so that when the time comes, they have a weakened citizenry and they can just cancel America altogether. That’s the main goal of the Marxists: They do not want us to free.”
Since it was posted, the video has garnered more than 38,000 views and was posted on the Take Back Our Schools Facebook page, where it was shared 11 times. The first comment on the thread is by a woman named Connie White who writes, “Contreras needs to go.”
During the June 17 school board meeting, one officer from the Greensboro Police Department was present as was one deputy from the sheriff’s office.
Carr, with Guilford County Schools, said that the district couldn’t comment on under investigation or provide details regarding security but said that they are taking the situation seriously.
“We view this as a very serious matter and have reported our concerns to law enforcement,” Carr said. “Based on their input, we are updating our safety protocols and will take the appropriate steps to protect our superintendent, school board, staff and visitors.”
When asked about additional security for Contreras based on the threats, Jim Secor, the public information officer for the sheriff’s office, stated that “at present neither Dr. Contreras nor anyone from Guilford County Schools has notified the sheriff’s office about any threats to the Dr. nor requested action from our agency regarding any threats.”
Ron Glenn, the public information officer for the Greensboro Police Department, told TCB that they had been contacted by school administration about email correspondence they have received.
“The correspondence will be reviewed to check for any violations of criminal law,” Glenn said. “The police department will continue to communicate with school administration and take all appropriate measures.”
School board member Irby said she questions the group’s singular focus on Contreras.
“That’s a direct attack on someone. It’s a form of bullying, harassment,” Irby said. “As a school board member, I think it’s only right for us to make sure that we protect our employee.”
Tillman, the representative for District 3, was not present at the June 17 meeting due to military training, but said that even though he wouldn’t necessarily conduct himself that way, that he doesn’t see the protesters as a problem.
“If they are close to the windows and no one is hurt, I don’t see a problem with it,” he said. “I wouldn’t personally do that, but I think these folks are pretty harmless.”
School board member Bellamy-Small said as a Black woman, she has also experienced also as a public servant and said she is taking the threats seriously.
“I have dealt with this before, people calling me names, the N-word,” Bellamy-Small said. “I think that there are appropriate concerns for folks particularly with us seeing what happened in January. You have a group of people that will go over the boundaries.”