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The book ban movement has a chilling new tactic: harassing teachers on social media

Nancy Vera was awakened suddenly at midnight on July 12 by the sound of a single gunshot, the bullet ricocheting off her home. She looked at a security camera just in time to see a truck speed away.

Vera was shocked but not surprised. The president of the Corpus Christi, Texas, branch of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), she had recently handed out books with LGBTQ characters at a pride event for local students, alongside a drag queen. 

Vera thought the event was a fun opportunity to connect with local parents and distribute books to kids. But conservatives, including her local sheriff, called the event an example of the “grooming and indoctrination of young people in our country.” “Grooming” is a slur commonly used by devotees of the conspiracy theory QAnon, which claims that powerful people and institutions are ensnaring children in sex trafficking rings.

“This type of rhetoric is going to get people killed,” she says. 

Corpus Christi, where Vera lives, has become a flashpoint for a growing push among Christian and conservative groups across the US to get certain books and topics they deem inappropriate for children removed from school libraries and curriculums. Now the fight is turning increasingly ugly, with people targeting individual teachers’ private social media accounts for scrutiny and even harassment. 

On July 9, the conservative group County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF) held a public seminar in Corpus Christi about monitoring school curriculums and “researching social media of teachers, school board members, staff of school districts and elected officials,” effectively teaching people how to stalk and harass educators online.

“I have been tracking this current movement of book banning since last summer, and this is the first I have seen of a deliberate effort to track or monitor teachers and staff,” says Jonathan Friedman, the director of Free Expression and Education at PEN America, a nonprofit that defends free expression.

The CCDF event represents a pivotal moment in the recent spate of book bans across America, he says. (CCDF declined to comment for this story.)

The specific issues that would-be book banners focus on vary. Some parents are offended by discussions of race in their children’s books like The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Others want kids kept away from books that discuss gender, sexual orientation, or sex, such as Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Johnson. And some want books that depict non-Christian beliefs or cultures out of libraries.

The recent turn to monitoring educators’ social media accounts is no surprise, says Friedman, given the book-ban movement’s origins in online messaging boards and Facebook groups.

“This is a movement that was formed online, so it’s not so much that these activists are moving online so much as they are moving the target from schools to teachers and librarians,” Friedman says. “And it’s not going to stop there.”

Vera has seen the impact of this firsthand. In the week since the pride book event, she says, she has been bombarded with threatening Facebook messages and phone calls. In an effort to protect herself, she now carries Mace and has installed home security cameras.

Other conservative groups are also tracking teachers’ social media accounts. Moms for Liberty and its offshoot group, Moms for Libraries, have been engaging in this type of monitoring and have also started distributing “liberty-minded books” with conservative publishing house Brave Books, which claim to “empower this generation’s youth with conservative values” while “glorifying the Lord in all we do.”

The Leadership Institute is another conservative group that has justified this tactic. “Anyone who wades into the public discourse using social media is presenting their personal or political views for all to see,” Matthew Hurtt, the director of graduate relations at the Leadership Institute, said in an email to me. “If teachers, administrators, and elected officials espouse objectionable views on social media, there is a good chance they are espousing those views in the classroom or in school board meetings.”

One clear pattern is emerging: educators who support teaching sex education and discussing LGBTQ issues are labeled “groomers.” 

Gloria Gonzales Dholakia, a school board member in Leander, Texas, says she was called a groomer at a school board meeting that was broadcast online, leading to a slew of hateful comments. A man who attended the meeting made several highly personal remarks, including suggesting that Gonzales Dholakia’s husband, who was sitting just a few feet away in the room, must be abusive. “My kids were watching this online at home. I was so angry and was ready to quit,” she says. 

Gonzales Dholakia did not quit, but the need to grapple with slurs and online harassment is yet another burden for teachers exhausted by the pandemic and other issues, including mass shootings at schools. Thousands of teachers have either retired or quit the profession in the last two years.

Those who stay have to try to work out what to do to protect themselves and their colleagues. But resources for dealing with the online harassment of educators are sparse because it is such a relatively new problem, says Viktorya Vilk, the director for digital safety and free expression at PEN America.

PEN America has created a step-by-step guide to prepare and help people respond to online harassment. But sometimes it’s too little, too late, Vilk says: “So many of these educators are quitting jobs, and those quitting jobs are disproportionately women and people of color — the exact people we don’t want to quit because that means our libraries and schools are less diverse and don’t reflect the full range of American experience. It’s really alarming.”

Educators like Vera refuse to stand back. She recently joined colleagues at a counterprotest to voice their concerns about their safety, and she’s spending the next few weeks before schools reopen beefing up protection measures for her colleagues. The Corpus Christi police department is investigating the shooting, and the AFT has added a security detail for her. She’s working to install security cameras at schools and is advising new teachers on how to deal with online harassment.

“I’m not going to stop what I’m doing,” she says.

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