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The 'Concerned Parents' of Missouri Who Aren't Racist, Damnit 

Charity Ikpe, a Rockwood school parent, urged the mostly white attendees at an April 30 forum to recognize that her family experiences racism, and that "white privilege is real." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Charity Ikpe, a Rockwood school parent, urged the mostly white attendees at an April 30 forum to recognize that her family experiences racism, and that "white privilege is real."

Overwrought and on camera, a white Rockwood parent began her soon-to-be viral moment in a trembling voice: “Just because I do not want critical race theory taught to my children in school," she told a room filled with parents, "does not make me a racist, damnit!”

Within hours, her tearful declaration had been viewed thousands of times, the clip shared in a tweet that included a Twitter user’s two-word caption of its subject: “A racist.”

Yet, as she stood among the 200 or so attendees who had gathered on a sunny Friday for what was billed as a “community conversation” about the Rockwood School District curriculum, the majority of the room’s reaction to her outburst wasn’t mockery, but approval — and they gave her the loudest applause of the day.
In the week since the forum, its drama has been featured in multiple national publications that framed the event as yet another flashpoint in the ongoing ideological battle over how race, history and societal responsibility are taught in American classrooms.



But, in fairness, those weren't the terms being thrown around on April 30 event. Instead, speaker after speaker, including two state senators, accused the district’s teachers of inserting “indoctrination,” “Marxism” and "promoting racism against white people" into lesson plans.

It wasn’t just Rockwood. Before the “I’m not a racist” mom’s comments, another speaker rose to claim that critical race theory was “rampant” in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton. She added that her seventh-grade daughter no longer wanted to be white after learning that her skin color made her an “oppressor.”

“To me,” the parent declared, “this is child abuse.”

But to the district’s administration, teachers, and a handful of parents who showed up to the forum to support the Rockwood curriculum, the crisis is getting out of hand — and starting to get scary. Over the last two months, what began as a Facebook group of “Concerned Parents” who wanted Rockwood to reopen classrooms to in-person instruction has morphed into something even messier and more detached from reality. Instead of the COVID-19 lockdown, they’ve directed their rage at a purported conspiracy to use critical race theory to propagandize the district’s 22,000 students — of which 75 percent are white — with the goal of transforming the kids into guilt-ridden leftist activists.

But behind their fury, these parents have produced little substance to back up their concerns. And, as the forum demonstrated, declaring you aren’t a racist is one thing. Showing it is another.

Around 200 parents and community members gathered in Eureka to discuss "critical race theory." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Around 200 parents and community members gathered in Eureka to discuss "critical race theory."

The lead-up
to the raucous April 30 meeting built slowly over time with seemingly minor policy clashes and internet spats — and then, all at once, it was raging out in the open. For instance, there was the March 16 email sent by Rockwood Superintendent Mark Miles informing parents about “the decision to remove baseball caps at Eureka High School that display a thin blue line flag.” He explained that the symbol “represents different things to different people” and that “any political or potentially divisive symbol has no place on our uniforms.”

The reaction was swift, and torrential. “Get a backbone and grow a set,” one parent’s email read, according to documents obtained by St. Louis Public Radio’s Ryan Delaney. Another email began by calling Miles “a disgrace,” and added: “I hope you sleep well at night and are not in need of law enforcement."

Soon after, someone had put up a sign near a heavily traveled road in the district, urging passersby to call Miles. Above his phone number, the sign proclaimed, “ROCKWOOD CANCELLED.” Three weeks later, Miles announced his retirement at a school board meeting. (In a recent remark to St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Aisha Sultan, he acknowledged that his decision to end his nearly three-decade career in education was related to “some of the anger expressed and disrespectful language that has been shared with me.”)

Things were also getting weird online. As the Concerned Parents group splintered on Facebook, members began collecting screenshots and forming a countermovement to the hardline group of conservative parents who had taken control. The screenshots were passed to local journalists — and to TikTok star “Aunt Karen,” who blasted out outraged updates about the Facebook group’s activities to her 626,000 followers.

At the same time, the parents who saw the district’s diversity curriculum as a threat to their children’s emotional well-being had their own sources — inside the district.

On April 22, Natalie Fallert, a district literacy coordinator, sent a three-page memo to the district’s middle and high school English teachers, addressing the “recurring messages” she had received from “a cell of parents” upset about book selections and assignment descriptions.

After more than a year of virtual learning, the parents had become accustomed to seeing their children’s assignments on the district’s online education portal, Canvas, and they were using that access to generate alarm about lessons involving concepts like power imbalances, gender norms and “cultural intersections,” Fallert wrote.

It wasn't just the book selections, but the language used in assignments. Some parents accused the district of “pushing an agenda,” “making white kids feel bad about their privilege,” and “teaching kids to be democratic thinkers and activists.”

The parents had also accused the school of teaching critical race theory, though on this point Fallert added a special note in parentheses: “I had to look this one up! There are a ton of definitions, so to know which they are honing in on specifically can be tough.”

In the email to teachers, Fallert pointed out that the lessons had been taught throughout the district and showed “a huge success” in multiple classrooms. She didn’t believe that students were going home “feeling bad” and “depressed” as parents claimed — but she also acknowledged that the parents who made these claims weren’t just being a nuisance, or limiting harassment to the administration, but “coming after individual teachers.”

“I am REALLY sorry for this,” Fallert wrote. “I don’t know how to stop it!”

Unfortunately, Fallert’s solution, which she wrote out in detail, would only ratchet up the harassment: Believing that the parents’ misplaced concerns could be diverted by changing the language in the curriculum — particularly removing the word “privilege,” which the parents automatically read as “white” — she encouraged teachers to create a separate parent-facing curriculum on Canvas.

The tactic was about self-protection, and it was intended to cut off the parents who were looking for further evidence that teachers were trying to turn their kids into anti-police liberals.

“This is not being deceitful,” Fallert wrote. “This is just doing what you have done for years. Prior to the pandemic you didn’t send everything home or have it available. You taught in your classroom and things were peachy keen."

But things were far from peachy keen, and when the email leaked, the apparent cover-up became a bigger story than the alleged crime. The district released an apology — “Asking teachers to conceal anything from parents does not reflect the mission, vision and values of the Rockwood School District” — but the story quickly hit Fox News and its morning show Fox & Friends, where one of the concerned parents was given a chance to hold forth on the “cop hate” and “foul language” in the books her ninth grader was assigned to read for a unit on cultural identity.

Fallert had her personal info shared online, including her phone number, but she was far from the only target. Two Black administrators, Terry Harris and Brittany Hogan, confirmed to St. Louis Public Radio that they had received death threats, prompting the district to hire private security for them.

The calls started pouring in.

“You fucking cunts,” an unidentified male voice said in a voicemail to the administration, a copy of which was obtained by the RFT. Between shouted streams of profanity, the caller said that he’d recently read coverage of the curriculum controversy on the conservative website the Daily Caller. Rockwood’s teachers, he said, “are raping children, and now you’re raping their minds, teaching them how to hate and divide and lie about critical race theory!”

“The good news,” the voicemail continued, “is it looks like there’s caring, loving parents who won’t put up with your fucking bullshit anymore. And they’re going to stand up and take their schools back from the communist, ass-fucking pieces of dogshit cunts that you are.”

State Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin (R-Shelbina), told the crowd "we don't want ideology taught" in classrooms, adding, "we don't want to tell our students that we are basically a horrible nation." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • State Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin (R-Shelbina), told the crowd "we don't want ideology taught" in classrooms, adding, "we don't want to tell our students that we are basically a horrible nation."

On April 30
, several dozens of cars pulled past the gates into Brookdale Farms, a picturesque wedding and event venue in rural Eureka which played host to the “community conversation.”

After months of tension and controversy, the roughly two-hour meeting operated at the tenor of a Facebook comment section. Conversation, and community, were distant afterthoughts.

This was much bigger than a Facebook group. What was once contained in social media now featured the “distinguished guests” of Missouri state Senators Andrew Koenig and Cindy O’Laughlin. Both affirmed the concerns of parents who believed schools across the state were succumbing to a dangerous ideology.

To illustrate that danger — and what, exactly, critical race theory even is — the event began with a largely incoherent Zoom presentation from Bion Bartning, the former cofounder of popular lip-balm brand Eos and the current head of FAIR, the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism. As he explained, he had helped found the group after realizing that the diversity curriculum being taught in his children’s elite New York private school was actually indoctrinating them into a form of “racism masquerading as anti-racism.”

If the audience was hoping for clarity on the issue, this wasn’t it. Technical troubles made much of Bartning’s 30-minute presentation difficult to follow as he coined new terms like “neo-racism” and “the New Orthodoxy.” In one slide, a chaotically arranged graphic claimed to show the academic and historical factors behind critical race theory; the slide did this by placing arrows and red boxes around terms like “Post-modernist philosophy,” “Stockley Carmichael,” and “Intersectionality” while using green circles to show the roles of “Thought reform,” “Ku Klux Klan & Jim Crow” and “Fall of Religion, Rise of Tech.”

In another slide, Bartning presented a chart of checkboxes comparing “FAIR values” to “the New Orthodoxy” and “Ku Klux Klan ideology” — the latter two presented as equivalent, equally lacking in a list of defined “character strengths” including “judgment,” “curiosity” and “forgiveness.”

However, in his remarks Bartning did not explain his theory's references to the KKK or how the racist group was now, apparently, stoking anti-racist activism in the classroom. Two slides later, Bartning encouraged parents to model their counter-activism against critical race theory on “MLK’s civil-rights movement.”

A slide from the FAIR presentation drew parallels between anti-racism lessons in the classroom — defined as "the new Orthodoxy — and what he termed "Ku Klux Klan Ideology." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • A slide from the FAIR presentation drew parallels between anti-racism lessons in the classroom — defined as "the new Orthodoxy — and what he termed "Ku Klux Klan Ideology."

When it came time for the attendees to speak themselves, several repeated claims that diversity lessons were forms of Marxism or liberal propaganda — but, like Bartning, they drew on their own feelings and anecdotal descriptions of the lessons’ impact on their kids.

Lost in the noise was any evidence of what was actually happening in these classes. No lesson plans were discussed, no assignments read. No Rockwood teachers or administrators appeared at the meeting. Of the two self-identified students who rose to speak, one said she had never heard the term “critical race theory” ever mentioned in her classes; the second said she dreaded her English assignments — but it wasn’t critical race theory she was concerned about. Rather, she decried the “disturbing literature” featuring violence and sexual content that, as a Christian, threatened her “purity.”

And while a white parent crying out about how she’s “not a racist, damnit!” became a viral hit, it wasn’t the only moment caught on camera that day that revealed the overriding self-concern at play among the concerned parents.

When Amy Ryan took the mic, she discussed the racism she’d experienced growing up as a child of Asian descent in Wildwood, and, more recently, through messages she had received about “going back to China.”

“For years, I have been judged,” Ryan said — and at the table next to her, an older white woman shook her head in disagreement and mouthed, “No.”

At another point, a different parent defended the school's diversity efforts. She pointed out that most of the room was white, and that “we need to understand that our perspective as white people is not everyone’s perspective.” The crowd listened in silence, but erupted as she began to discuss the concept of white privilege — several men shouted back, “You just called us racist!” and “You judged this entire room on the color of our skin!”

Meanwhile, the senators in attendance attempted to control the crowd — but only insofar as establishing critical race theory was the real threat.

Responding to Ryan’s story of encountering racism against Asians, O’Laughlin, who is white, made it about herself — responding that she too has “had people say things to me that were hurtful and ugly,” and adding that although “some people do things they shouldn’t do, or shouldn’t say, we don’t want to tell our students that we are basically a horrible nation.”

Koenig, who is also white, then picked up his mic, and, like O’Laughlin, similarly sidestepped the experience of racism he’d just listened to so that he could talk about how the real racism is critical race theory. “The reality is mankind is sinful,” he said, and added that “there’s always going to be a lot of racism out there, but, honestly, there’s no better place to live, in human history, than the United States right now.”

Koenig might be right, but, for Rockwood School District, the United States is a place where teachers and students are being buffeted by paranoid Facebook moms and Republican politicians who wrangled a free 200-person rally out of the district’s publicized distress.

The consequences are already hitting. Along with the resignation of Rockwood Superintendent Mark Miles, Brittany Hogan announced that she's leaving her job as the district’s director of educational equity and diversity — less than one year after being promoted to the position.

Defenders of the school aren’t staying silent, however. On May 6, members of the Rockwood school board took turns reading a statement addressing the “sometimes hateful and certainly hurtful social media posts, emails and voicemails” sent to the district staff, and calling on “all stakeholders, parents, community members, staff and students to stop spreading hate and shame.”

“We implore you to think about what you say,” said Board President Jaime Bayes, reading aloud from the statement at the meeting’s conclusion.

There was one other thing.

“We want to be very clear,” she continued. “The Rockwood School District is not teaching critical race theory.”

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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