Posted on June 23, 2022

White Parents Rallied to Chase a Black Educator Out of Town. Then, They Followed Her to the Next One.

Nicole Carr, ProPublica, June 16, 2022

In April of 2021, Cecelia Lewis had just returned to Maryland from a house-hunting trip in Georgia when she received the first red flag about her new job.

The trip itself had gone well. Lewis and her husband had settled on a rental home in Woodstock, a small city with a charming downtown and a regular presence on best places to live lists. It was a short drive to her soon-to-be office at the Cherokee County School District and less than a half hour to her husband’s new corporate assignment. While the north Georgia county was new to the couple, the Atlanta area was not. They’d visited several times in recent years to see their son, who attended Georgia Tech.

Lewis, a middle school principal, initially applied for a position that would bring her closer to the classroom as a coach for teachers. But district leaders were so impressed by her interview that they encouraged her to apply instead for a new opening they’d created: their first administrator focused on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

DEI-focused positions were becoming more common in districts across the country, following the 2020 protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The purpose of such jobs typically is to provide a more direct path for addressing disparities stemming from race, economics, disabilities and other factors.


“We’re so excited to add Cecelia to the CCSD family,” Superintendent Brian Hightower said in the district’s March 2021 announcement about all of its new hires. (The announcement noted that the creation of the DEI administrator role “stems from input from parents, employees and students of color who are serving on Dr. Hightower’s ad hoc committees formed this school year to focus on the topic.”) Hightower acknowledged “both her impressive credentials and enthusiasm for the role” and pointed out that, “In four days, she had a DEI action plan for us.”


Lewis was beginning to prepare for her move South, spending as much time with friends and family as possible, when she got a strange call from an official in her new school district. The person on the line — Lewis won’t say who — asked if she had ever heard of CRT.

Lewis responded, “Yes — culturally responsive teaching.” She was thinking of the philosophy that connects a child’s cultural background to what they learn in school. {snip}

At that point, she wasn’t even familiar with the other CRT, critical race theory, which maintains that racial bias is embedded in America’s laws and institutions and has caused disproportionate harm to people of color. In a speech the previous fall, then-President Donald Trump condemned CRT as “toxic propaganda” and “ideological poison.”

The caller then told Lewis that a group of people in a wealthy neighborhood in the northern part of the county were upset about what they believed were her intentions to bring CRT to Cherokee County. But don’t worry, the district official said; we just want to keep you updated.

The following month, inside a gabled white clubhouse overlooking the hills of a Cherokee County golf course, dozens of parents from across the county had assembled on a Sunday afternoon for a lesson in an emerging form of warfare. School board meetings would be their battlefield. Their enemy was CRT.

One of several presenters at the meeting was Rhonda Thomas, a frequent guest on conservative podcasts and the founder of the Atlanta-based Truth in Education, a national nonprofit that aims to educate parents and teachers about “radical ideologies being taught in schools.” “So what is critical race theory?” Thomas asked the crowd. “It teaches kids that whites are inherently racist and oppressive, perhaps unconsciously,” and that “all whites are responsible for all historical actions” and “should feel guilty.”

She added: “I cannot be asked for repentance for something my grandparents did or my ancestors did, right?”

Thomas stressed that parents should form their own nonprofit groups and cut ties with their schools’ Parent Teacher Associations. “The PTA supports everything we’re against,” she told them.

Another presenter, a local paralegal named Noelle Kahaian, leads the nonprofit Protect Student Health Georgia, which aims to “educate on harmful indoctrination” including “comprehensive sexuality education” and “gender ideology.”

Kahaian emphasized how to grab attention during upcoming school board meetings. Identify the best speakers in the group, she told them, adding: “It’s OK to be emotional.” Be sure to capture video of them addressing the board — or even consider hiring a professional videographer.

“It’s good in case Tucker Carlson wants to put you on air,” Kahaian said. “It really helps.”


Presenter Noelle Kahaian talks to the crowd about the “tsunami strategy.”

She then briefed them on how to file grievances about school board members’ teaching licenses and on their right to request school board members’ cellphone records.

And she advised them on the benefit of collaborating with “outside forces” to file open records requests to school systems for employee emails and curriculum plans that could provide evidence of inappropriate material being taught in classrooms. Doing so would allow those outsiders to “take some of the heat.”

But there was one agenda item that would inspire the crowd to take more urgent action than any other: They had to figure out what to do about the Cherokee County School District’s decision to hire a woman named Cecelia Lewis.

“And when I got a text message from somebody saying that this person was hired, I immediately was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, where are my people?’” said another speaker, Mandy Heda, a Cherokee County GOP precinct chair who introduced herself as a parent of four students in the district.


Presenter Mandy Heda criticizes the district’s decision to hire Cecelia Lewis.

“You cannot tell me, you know, that you can’t find somebody else qualified,” Heda responded. “And if you’re looking for her to be Black, that’s fine. But that’s not what this is about. This is not about the color of her skin. It’s what she’s going to bring into our district and what she’s going to teach our children.”

Another person in the crowd later asked if the arrival of Lewis was a done deal. Several confirmed that it was.

“We don’t have to accept it, right?” another man asked, the crowd’s energy rising in response with a collective yes. “We can change that, right?”

“In some way, shape or form,” another woman vowed.

The May 2021 clubhouse meeting, a recording of which was provided to ProPublica by a parent who attended, provides a window into the ways in which conservative groups quickly and efficiently train communities to take on school districts in the name of concepts that aren’t even being taught in classrooms.

National groups, often through their local chapters, have provided video lessons and toolkits to parents across the country on how to effectively spread their messaging about so-called school indoctrination. Parents Defending Education has created “indoctrination maps” tracking everything from a district celebrating “Black Lives Matter week” to one that allows students to watch CNN Student News, while the Atlanta-based Education Veritas and Kahaian’s Protect Student Health Georgia provide portals for anonymously reporting educators supposedly sympathetic to CRT, DEI and other so-called controversial learning concepts.

In the wake of 2020’s summer of racial reckoning, as the work of anti-racist authors shot to the top of bestseller lists and corporations expressed renewed commitments to diversity initiatives, conservatives mounted a counteroffensive against what they viewed as an anti-white, anti-American, “woke” liberal agenda. And with that effort came a renewed vilification of CRT, a four-decade-old theory that, contrary to its opponents’ accusations, is rarely if ever taught in K-12 public school systems (it typically is taught in graduate-level college and law school courses). That effort quickly snowballed into complaints about what used to be basic history lessons involving race and slavery, which organized groups began conflating with CRT and campaigning for their removal from curriculums.

Nearly 900 school districts across the country have been targeted by anti-CRT efforts from September 2020 to August 2021, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, San Diego, found. Teachers and district equity officers surveyed and interviewed for the report “often described feeling attacked and at risk for discussing issues of race or racism at all, or promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion in any way. Equity officers told us that at times they feared for their personal safety.”


Using local media coverage and lawsuits, ProPublica has identified at least 14 public school employees across the country, six of them Black, who were chased out in part by anti-CRT efforts in 2021. Some of the educators resigned or did not have their contracts renewed, while others were fired by school boards where elections had ushered in more politically extreme members.

Since January 2021, legislatures in more than 40 states have proposed or passed bills and resolutions that would restrict teaching CRT or would limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. Four days after the meeting in the golf course clubhouse, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp released a statement solidifying his stance against CRT and asking the state Board of Education to do the same. “I urge you to take immediate steps to ensure that Critical Race Theory and its dangerous ideology do not take root in our state standards or curriculum,” it read.

On June 3, 2021, the Board of Education did just that, joining Utah’s as the first such groups to pass resolutions of that kind. Georgia’s declared that “the United States of America is not a racist country, and that the state of Georgia is not a racist state.”


On May 18, 2021, two days after the meeting at the clubhouse, Cherokee County’s schools communications chief and its school board members received the first of approximately 100 form letters that would flood their inboxes over a 48-hour period, demanding that Lewis be fired.

Another parent wrote to a school board member, citing Cherokee County’s recent census statistics: “Did you know that 77.8% of the population is considered ‘whtie [sic] alone’ 7.7% are black and 11.1% hispanic? Are we now in a county that is going to cater to a handful of people?”


Well before the Cherokee County School Board meeting’s 7 p.m. start time, people hoping to get inside were being turned away. The room and the overspill viewing area in the lobby were at capacity. Those who were denied entry gathered outside near the parking lot, where they could peek through windows and glimpse the large screens mounted in the boardroom. Others hung around outside, planning to watch the livestream of the meeting on their phones.

At home in Maryland, Lewis and her husband sat in their bedroom, the laptop propped up between them.

Inside, just before the meeting started, mothers in black T-shirts printed with the words “I don’t co-parent with the government” smiled and posed for pictures. A husky man with a deep voice formed the beginning of the large prayer circle that inched toward the dais where district officials, student delegates and Cherokee County’s seven school board members were seated.

The first order of business was introduced by Mike Chapman, a Republican board member who’d held his seat for more than two decades: a resolution against teaching CRT and the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times series that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” {snip}

What came next caught Lewis off guard.

Hightower, the superintendent, read from a statement: “While I had initially entertained and publicly spoken to the development of a diversity, equity and inclusivity, DEI plan, I recognize that our intentions have become widely misunderstood in the community and it created division.

“To that end, I have concluded that there will be no separate DEI plan.”


A subsequent speaker, a parent named Lori Raney, was rewarded with applause when she asked the board, “My question to you is, if you vote to do away with the DEI program, does that mean the new DEI officer has her offer rescinded? Because why do we need to pay $115,000 for somebody who doesn’t have a job to do anymore?”

At that moment, Lewis recalled, her husband said: “That’s it. We’re not doing this. You are not going there.” He left the bedroom in disgust.

Not long after, a volunteer from the campaign of Vernon Jones, a Black Republican who at the time was running for governor (Jones later switched to a run for Congress), read a statement to the school board from the candidate. “Embracing the teaching of critical race theory is a slap in the face of Dr. King’s teachings,” said the volunteer, Stan Fitzgerald. “Taxpayer-funded anti-white racism is still exactly that — racism.”


The board voted 4-1 with two abstentions to pass the anti-CRT and anti-1619 Project resolution.{snip}


In a phone call the next morning, Hightower apologized to Lewis. He said he still wanted her to come to Cherokee. Another administrator asked if she would consider a different position.

But by then she’d made up her mind. She told Hightower: It’s just not going to work.


When Lewis and her husband actually relocated to Georgia later that summer, the Cherokee parents’ private Facebook group lit up.

“Guess where Cecelia Lewis is possibly landing now?” another woman wrote.

They’d figured out her next move.

Five days after Lewis quit her would-be job in Cherokee County, the district’s human resources director forwarded a copy of her resume to the chief academic officer at his former school district, one county over. “Great catching Up!” he wrote. “Talk soon.”

Officials in the Cobb County School District, the second-largest in the state, called Lewis soon after. They wanted to talk to her about an opening they had for a supervisor of social studies, a job title she’d held in another school district earlier in her career.


In June, at around the same time that Lewis got the call from Cobb County to come in for an interview, Cobb’s seven-member school board passed its own anti-CRT and anti-1619 Project resolution. Three members — all of them Black Democrats — abstained, noting this was not the first time they were blindsided by the addition of a problematic, last-minute agenda item.


Lewis recalled that a district official finally called her back toward the end of July to apologize for the delayed response and explained that the superintendent had been involved in vetting her hiring, something that typically doesn’t happen for a person who applies for a supervisor role.

The district offered Lewis the job on that call, and she accepted. She was asked to report to work the next day, July 20.

By the end of the week — right around the time when the Cherokee County parent circulated the tip in the private Facebook group that Lewis might now be heading to Cobb — Lewis got a call from a school district leader. It was someone above her boss, Lewis said. According to Lewis, the person requested an immediate, off-site meeting.

It was already after 6 p.m. Lewis had just settled in for a manicure and pedicure. She left her appointment and headed to a nearby Panera Bread, where she and the district official took a seat near the back of the restaurant.

The person explained that complaints about her were “percolating” out of Cherokee into Cobb, according to Lewis, who also remembered the person telling her to be careful; she’s an at-will employee (meaning she can be fired at any time for any reason without notice) and the person might not be able to help her. Lewis also recalled the person telling her that she shouldn’t have to endure in Cobb what she went through in Cherokee.


Around the same time, Cobb’s four Republican school board members, its superintendent and another district official, John Floresta, were fielding complaints about the decision to hire Lewis.

“I am appalled that anyone would advocate for the racist, sexist, and Marxist ideology that is Critical Race Theory,” one woman wrote to the group in an email, which ProPublica obtained through an open records request. Her name was redacted. She went on to say, among other things: “I insist that you pass real policy reforms that forbid indoctrinating children with CRT in classrooms,” “Anyone found pushing CRT on CCSD time should be immediately terminated,” and “Make no mistake: press releases and toothless resolutions just won’t cut it.”


At the end of August, Lewis requested a meeting with her supervisor and the district’s chief academic officer. She told them that she would be submitting her two-week notice.