06/29/2021 02:23 p.m. EST
Filtering past a sign-up desk to take seats in the cafeteria, about 120 people gathered in the Guilford Community Center on June 24 for what was billed as an informational session on dangerous, radical ideas allegedly being taught in Guilford schools. Outside, about 50 others held signs, mostly expressing support for the Board of Education (BOE), as they mingled with media and each other while their children played a few yards away in the grass.
The topic at hand—what is being taught in Guilford schools about race and racism—has remained one of the most emotional, contentious local issues in recent memory, but now appears to have grown exponentially as those who have spoken out against recent school equity initiatives have joined a larger national movement opposed to a handful of vague concepts and buzzwords like Critical Race Theory (CRT) that are misapplied to seemingly any type of teaching that involves race or marginalized groups.
Notably, neither side showed a particular interest in, or an understanding of buzzwords that have blared across the airwaves nationwide in what is being described as a new phase in the proverbial “culture wars.”
Instead, rally-goers responded to accusations that certain educational practices were resulting in censorship and divisiveness, as out-of-town speakers railed against Marxism or gender inclusivity, and literature highlighted statements by local officials in support of new educational initiatives. Counter-protesters focused on the importance of teaching about racism, pushing back against the alarmist narrative of some of the speakers while expressing support for the BOE and their attempts to update curriculum and pedagogy around race.
Those who sat down that evening heard from both a current Guilford schools student and recent graduate, along with a former police officer and a New Hampshire entrepreneur, who over the course of two hours mixed sincere personal anecdotes with wide-ranging and often significant mis-characterizations of both historical and current events, as well as racist tropes about gun violence and policing.
At least initially, there was no sign of the kind of tension that could have been expected, even as a few people on both sides of the issue engaged with each other in the early evening hours ahead of the planned rally ostensibly focused on Guilford curriculum and initiatives implemented by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Freeman and the BOE.
Though both sides stayed mostly peaceful—unlike some similar events in other states—one person was later escorted out of the rally by police after heckling one of the speakers, and police were also involved in a handful of other incidents as some of the counter-protesters gathered in the hallway to watch the rally through the windows.
GPD Chief Butch Hyatt said there were no arrests or citations issued, and that those people who police did speak to were “very respectful” and confrontations were quickly de-escalated.
Advertised as an informational forum, the group that sponsored the June 24 gathering, No Left Turn in Education, is a relatively new, partisan non-profit that advocates against “radical, totalitarian ideology” it claims is being taught in schools in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.
Truth In Education (TIE), a Guilford-based group of parents, helped coordinate and put it together, bringing in speakers from New Hampshire as well as members of the Guilford community, also with the stated goal of ending the “indoctrination” of children in town specifically as it relates to racism.
Over the past year—and going back even further—Freeman has made it clear the district is committed to re-evaluating both curriculum and how it teaches about race, as well as making structural changes such as hiring a part-time diversity officer position and working to bring teachers of color into the schools.
This includes, he has said, acknowledging systemic racism both historically and in the country today, and expanding the types of voices students are exposed to as part of the district’s inquiry-based learning model, a common education philosophy that emphasizes incorporating disparate perspectives and data into ideas rather than rote content memorization.
Freeman has repeatedly said the schools do not teach the specific theories of CRT, which have been around for decades and are more commonly taught at the gradaute school level. They are commonly mis-characterized in the national conversation. He has said, however, that there are very broad and foundational commonalities between Guilford’s curriculum and some of these concepts.
Rally organizers argued that these concepts and the language the district uses are merely screens to incorporate hyper-radical concepts, with speakers connecting them to issues with division among students and censorship, as well as 1980s French intellectuals, police murders from decades ago, and Adolf Hitler.
“I reject the assumption that talking about race therefore makes us racists,” Freeman said at a recent BOE meeting. “I don’t think that asking our adult teachers to wrestle with those ideas can be equated with being racist.”
The BOE has repeatedly urged residents to reach out directly to it on these issues.
Danielle Scarpellino, a Guilford resident and one of the most vocal early opponents of the Guilford curriculum who also helped organize the rally, focused on the connections between Guilford and these larger, nebulous concepts. She said TIE intends to operate similarly to the larger No Left Turn movement, and laid out a long list of public or private statements Freeman and other local leaders have made that she called anti-White or racist, many of which were in literature distributed at the rally.
These include urging the community to examine or “elevate” Guilford’s awareness of Whiteness, and telling her that there would be “nothing wrong” with students calling out microaggressions among their peers.
Scarpellino also claimed that TIE has lawyers examining alleged violations of law or school policy committed by Freeman.
Though literature disseminated by TIE explicitly said one of its main goals is to “explain explicitly” that “systemic racism is a lie and does not exist in America,” Scarpellino told the Courier that “systemic racism may be true in certain instances, [and] there may be parts of our country that need to be looked at and restructured.”
What she objected to, she said, was people who cast a “fishing net” or call everything racist, using the election of former President Barack Obama as an example of why the United States is “the least racist country.”
Those who showed up to support the BOE’s initiatives about an hour before the rally said there was no single organizer or theme, except they all wanted to make their voices heard regarding the importance of teaching about racism.
Linda Fan was there, she said, to support her son, Wyatt Sprenkle, who will be starting at Guilford High School in the fall. She said the buzzwords and rhetoric used by the event organizers didn’t mean very much to her, but that what Guilford is teaching its students is not something frightening or radical.
“Frankly I don’t understand how proving racism is controversial,” she said.
Sprenkle also said he had never heard of the initiatives or theories that people were rallying against, but said that was a sign that maybe the schools needed to go even further in teaching about racism.
“I think the fact that I don’t know more than that is proof that we don’t learn enough,” he said. The BOE initiative “is a good step in doing that.”
Students who disagree or question these narratives are allowed to do so, he said, and teachers “handle it pretty well,” according to Sprenkle.
“We aren’t told what to think,” he said.
Robert Herrington was another resident who showed up to protest, holding a sign in support of the BOE. He said he had moved to Guilford relatively recently after his wife, who is not White, had experienced racism in other parts of the shoreline.
Being there was something that was “both very personal, and a very much a matter of that is morally correct,” he said.
“When you try and pretend that race doesn’t matter, then you’re invalidating all the experiences that marginalized groups have that aren’t good,” he said.
One man who was on his way into the rally spoke with a group of the counter-protesters for about 15 minutes. That conversation remained civil, and ranged widely from questions of exposure to non-White educators in schools, to whether Guilford was teaching that having a nuclear family was racist.
The counter-protesters called much of this “misinformation,” though the man continued to say he felt the initiatives were “causing division.”
Doreen Mantilia, a former math teacher from Clinton, said she was attending the rally to support one of her friends who had helped organize it. A member of a local conservative women’s group, she added she didn’t know much about the initiatives being discussed but was concerned that something nefarious might be spreading and wanted to learn more about it.
“I need to hear what this is,” Mantilia said. “I’m concerned that we’re next.”
In her career and field, she said she had seen movement toward more inclusive teaching—altering word problems to be more relatable to girls or non-White students, for instance—which is something Freeman has said is part of an ongoing audit in Guilford. Mantilia said she fully supported this kind of work, and felt it was important.
What she was afraid of, though, was that students were being made to feel bad for any reason.
“Kids on the shoreline are so inclusive,” she said.
Of those who spoke at the rally, two had connections to Guilford. Tony Dise, a 2013 Guilford graduate who identifies as bi-racial, shared a heartfelt and emotional story of both experiencing racism in Guilford and in the rest of the world, while arguing that academic concepts allegedly pushed by the school are divisive.
Adopted by a Guilford family after being in state custody as a child, Dise described being called the n-word repeatedly over the course of years by an acquaintance back in his youth, but eventually reconciling with that person as an adult.
“This person who I classified as a racist may not have been as racist at all. Probably just a bully, a temporary bully who needed to mature, needed to be educated,” Dise said.
What Dise said he wanted to do was draw a distinction between this, and what he described as real, terrifying racism that he had encountered outside of Guilford—meeting a man who was wearing a KKK hood, or being asked “what is your race?” by a total stranger who had swastika tattoos.
Dise also said in his college classes, he was shut down by a White professor and invalidated by classmates when he said he didn’t feel like he was oppressed, a description that offended him, and was “the exact opposite of inclusion and diversity.”
“They continued to talk to me about how I was oppressed,” he said. “There’s oppression for all races…not for Black people only.
“I’m very proud to be half-Black,” he added.
But the new initiatives that schools are accused of teaching are creating a “huge, huge war between people,” Dise said, and that anyone who disagrees is being treated as “the enemy,” without freedom to express their thoughts or opinions outside the paradigm.
“I’m hoping that at the end of this night…I hope that people remain open-minded as we’ve been taught in schools,” he said. “And always remember that you live in a country that allows you to reject an idea respectfully.”
The other Guilford speaker identified himself as a current student, without giving a name. He claimed that just this year, he had been mistreated by teachers and classmates because of his conservative political beliefs.
“I was laughed at by my peers for rejecting what the schools [were] preaching,” he said. “My teachers don’t back me up or try to stop this. They openly support and allow the students to go after me. They condone the students that question and mock me.”
He said he rejected the idea that Black Americans are disadvantaged in society, and claimed he had been called a “flat-earther” and “attacked verbally and physically” due to the school’s initiatives.
In an email to the Courier, Freeman said he was not aware of these specific allegations and would not comment on any specific case, but added the district “would never condone a situation in which any child was hurt or made to feel unsafe.”
The other two speakers were Dan Richards, a parent from New Hampshire, and Mike Breen, the director of No Left Turn in Education’s New Hampshire branch, who also worked for many years in law enforcement and government.
Breen spoke the longest, and made only the most tenuous connections to Guilford or even educational issues in his remarks, accusing anti-racist scholars of using drugs, connecting teaching about race to “neo-eugenics,” and denying that Black slave labor was a significant factor in building the 18th- and 19th-century American economy.
The types of things allegedly being taught at Guilford schools are both directly drawn from, and directly lead to, totalitarianism and Marxism, he argued.
It was during Breen’s remarks that Walter Corbiere was ejected, after sarcastically shouting a warning that “They’re letting the African-Americans in,” referring to counter-protesters standing outside.
Corbiere, after being escorted out by rally organizers and police without further incident, said he simply wanted to make the point that “there was a lot more diversity in the hallway.”
“It’s sad, I’ve worked with a lot of the Republicans in that room,” he added.
Hyatt said GPD was careful to not take sides and that police were not there to remove or corral anyone unless there was a safety concern, as the meeting was in a public space. Corbiere claimed that organizers were trying to “leverage” police against counter-protestors at various times, and at one point a rally organizer was seen identifying a specific person in the crowd to a GPD officer, asking that police keep an eye on that person.
Shortly after Corbiere’s ejection, a man who admitted to working with the rally organizers but declined to give his name confronted another counter-protester who was playing MLK speeches on her phone, asking if she “took [her] meds,” and calling her “a nasty mouth.”
Rally organizers also closed the blinds part way through the event, seemingly in response to counter-protesters filming and photographing through the window.
Richards, the final speaker, described a scenario at the school his children attend in New Hampshire where administrators slowly introduced concepts similar to those that Freeman has promoted in Guilford.
Like Breen, he spent significant time detailing the allegedly hyper-radical agenda of certain national figures, academics, or other school districts but also spoke about how his family felt ostracized for not adapting to these changes, including being shunned by friends and shouted down in board meetings—stories that elicited sympathetic reactions from the audience.
At one point, Richards said a district administrator sent him a list of books to read to help him understand some of these concepts, with which he admitted to being unfamiliar.
“She told me I needed to educate myself,” he said, laughing. “I thought I had already graduated. Apparently my education was incomplete.”