The Perfect Enemy | Protect Nebraska Children emerges as political force in culture battles over schools
September 29, 2022

Protect Nebraska Children emerges as political force in culture battles over schools

Protect Nebraska Children emerges as political force in culture battles over schools  Omaha World-Herald

Read Time:18 Minute

In little more than a year, the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition has grown from a handful of worried parents and grandparents to a conservative political player in Nebraska with a Facebook page with more than 22,000 followers.

The coalition notched a victory when its relentless opposition — joined by Gov. Pete Ricketts and others — spurred the Nebraska State Board of Education to indefinitely postpone the adoption of optional school health education standards that critics said advanced a politically progressive view of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Another big win came in May when four conservative candidates for the state board, endorsed by the PNC political action committee, sailed comfortably through the primary. That sets up a general election showdown with four candidates endorsed by the Nebraska state teachers union.

The Nebraska group’s rapid rise reflects two realities that have unfolded across the country. First, many parents have become more involved in education since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, the role of cultural topics in the classroom, including LGBTQ issues and gender identity, has emerged as an energizing political force for candidates and voters.

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As Nebraska’s general election approaches, the rhetoric is mounting here. Terms such as “hate group,” “Christofascists” and “right-wing extremists” have been used against the PNC Coalition and the candidates it supports.

Meanwhile, opposing candidates are being called “pedophiles” and “Marxists.” And public school teachers are being accused of “grooming” students to rob them of their innocence and steer them into unhealthy behaviors.

Nebraska’s debate resembles similar, often partisan battles across the nation over what material is appropriate for school-age children. In some cases, such as the Virginia governor’s race, those fights may have been significant factors in elections.

But the founders of the PNC Coalition say they didn’t expect they would be playing a key role in Nebraska’s 2022 elections. Nor did they dream their group would get so big.

“The bottom line is this is the definition of grassroots,” said Nic Norton, a Kearney lawyer who joined the coalition in early 2021 when it had only six members. “None of us are professionals. None of us have done anything like this before. And we’ve had an amazing run as a group because we’re united about the notion of keeping our public schools and our private schools — our children — safe.”

The first time the public heard of the coalition was in May 2021 when one of its founders, Katie McClemens, announced at a state board meeting that the group had formed “to protect the health and innocence of children and the fundamental rights of parents to direct the education, health care and upbringing of their children.”

The seeds for the group’s creation were planted months earlier, even before the Nebraska Department of Education released the controversial first draft of the health standards.

On Feb. 11 last year, Nebraskans for Founders Values, a conservative group that advocates for religious freedom, parental rights and for restoring a culture based on Christian principles, held a public workshop at the Harmon Park Activity Center in Kearney.

Five people who eventually would found the PNC coalition were there.

Mark Bonkiewicz, a leader of Nebraskans for Founders Values, told attendees about a “major storm cloud” coming to Nebraska. Years earlier, Bonkiewicz had fought against efforts to introduce elements of comprehensive sexuality education into the Omaha Public Schools. Now, he said, family members and friends on the East and West Coasts were warning about the public school curricula in those places “called comprehensive sexuality education and critical race theory.”

By the time the Education Department released the first draft of the voluntary health education standards on March 10, some Kearney locals already were on alert.

The draft called for teaching children as young as first grade about gender identity and gender stereotypes. Kindergartners would be taught about different kinds of family structures, including “cohabitating” and same-gender families. Fourth graders would be taught the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity.

Advocates billed the standards as inclusive and potentially lifesaving for fostering understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ youths. They said the standards would help curb bullying and suicide.

But the Kearney parents and grandparents were disturbed by what they saw and decided to fight the standards. They joined with a father from outside Kearney who had created a Facebook group, and they dubbed it Protect Nebraska Children; later, it became the name of their coalition.

“We had no idea that within a month we would have 400 people at a State Board of Education meeting and we would have over 11,000 people on a Facebook group,” said Sue Greenwald, a retired pediatrician from Kearney who helped found the coalition. “That was not even on our radar. Things grew because the message resonated.”

As the group raced to get organized before the state education board’s May meeting, members surfed the internet for information from like-minded groups. One member found the website “Stop CSE,” which is run by the Arizona-based Family Watch International. It featured samples of comprehensive sexuality education, saving the Nebraska group from having to create its own literature.

The Protect Nebraska Children founders also learned that they could set up a webpage through the Stop CSE website that allowed them to collect donations for their coalition.

As of July 13, just under $6,800 had been donated to the coalition through the website, said Sharon Slater, president of Family Watch International.

Despite the early help from Family Watch International, the Nebraska coalition says their success didn’t stem from outside influence. The group’s founders say it’s their message of supporting parental rights, opposing comprehensive sexuality education and keeping political agendas out of public schools that resonates with the public.

Still, PNC’s early connection with Family Watch International has been targeted by the group’s opponents. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled Family Watch International as a hate group, citing its “promotion of anti-LGBT laws and anti-choice stances.” The center has not labeled PNC a hate group.

But that distinction hasn’t kept Nebraska critics of the local group from making a more sweeping claim.

Deborah Neary, who is running for reelection to the state board, texted colleagues the day after the May primary and suggested “outside interests” had influenced the election.

There is, she wrote, “a direct link from PNC to Family Watch International — a well-known national hate group that is now influencing Nebraska’s school board races. I think Nebraskans would be alarmed to know these outside interests are influencing our elections.”

In an interview with The World-Herald, she elaborated on the claim.

“They were founded by a hate group, and there’s evidence of that, and they have endorsed four candidates who perpetuate hate language, anti-LGBTQ and racist language and ideas,” Neary said.

Neary’s criticisms have been echoed by progressives posting on social media.

The founders of the PNC Coalition say the “hate group” label is an effort to stifle the organization’s views with a false accusation.

Greenwald said the claim is ridiculous.

“I feel I could write a book of Jeff Foxworthy jokes,” she said. “If you have the word ‘family’ or ‘children’ in your title, you might be a hate group. If you’re anti-indoctrination, you might be a hate group. If you don’t want porn in your schools, you might be a hate group.”

While the Nebraska group shares a common goal of protecting children with Family Watch International, it “doesn’t receive a dime” from that organization or any other national groups, said Norton, the coalition’s attorney.

And Slater said while Family Watch International has provided some strategic advice and technical support to the Nebraska group, “they are very competent and run their own program.”

In its critique of FWI, the Southern Poverty Law Center accuses the organization of “dehumanizing and portraying LGBTQ people as a predatory threat.”

Slater said her group is not anti-LGBT and “opposes harassment and violence against all persons, including LGBT individuals.”

Family Watch says it works to preserve and promote traditional marriage, safeguard parental rights, defend human life, uphold religious liberty and protect the health and innocence of children.

It also says that the unique contributions made by mothers and fathers “cannot be replaced by two ‘parents’ of the same sex” and that children will suffer if “society sanctions marriages that make it impossible for children to be raised by either their mother or father.”

As for the Nebraska coalition, Greenwald said the group is not anti-LGBT, either. Nor does it oppose sex education in schools.

“Of course not,” Greenwald said. “Sex ed has been taught in the schools for generations.”

But in the past, she said, “we didn’t teach it to second graders, and we didn’t have standards that require such an in-depth focus on different aspects of sexuality.”

The hate accusation is showing up in local school board races, founders say, causing some candidates to decline the PNC’s endorsement for fear of putting a target on their own backs.

Last March, Melissa McClanahan ran for the school board in the Nebraska City Public Schools with a PNC-PAC endorsement. Some critics attacked her for the connection, and McClanahan lost.

At the same time, the state teachers union and others, including Neary, have their own complaints about the PNC coalition’s efforts. They say the candidates endorsed by the PNC political action committee are “fearmongering” and spreading “hate and extreme disinformation” by encouraging people to watch a documentary film called “The Mind Polluters.”

The movie was produced by Mark and Amber Archer, a Christian husband and wife filmmaking team from Indiana. It is being screened in Nebraska and across the country. The coalition leaders endorse the movie.

The moviemakers assert that activist teachers in the nation’s public schools are using sex education classes and social-emotional learning lessons to encourage young children to accept progressive views of sex and sexuality without parents knowing or consenting. The moviemakers claim that this robs children of their innocence, breaks down their natural resistance to engaging in sexual activity and steers kids into unhealthy behaviors.

Some teachers resent the moviemakers’ use of the term “grooming” to describe this activism. In recent years, the term has been associated with how pedophiles break down children’s defenses to take advantage of them.

Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, called the movie “propaganda-based.”

But the movie, which was released in November 2021, expresses many of the same views that factored into the fight against Nebraska’s proposed health education standards.

In that battle, opponents outnumbered supporters about 2-to-1 at the first public meeting in 2021. The raucous crowd triggered decorum warnings from the board president and the commissioner of education.

The opposition movement found an ally in Ricketts, who criticized the standards as “political” and “nonscientific,” and started hosting town hall meetings to oppose them. The first such meeting in Grand Island on July 1 drew a largely receptive crowd of about 150 people, according to reporting by the Grand Island Independent.

A second watered-down draft released last July was met with opposition, too. The board last September indefinitely postponed development of the standards.

The coalition leaders say they realized that political action would be needed to keep proposals such as the standards from coming forward again. They formed a separate entity for political activity, the PNC-PAC, for supporting candidates. It is an independent committee subject to state campaign disclosure laws.

As of the most recent reporting date, PNC-PAC reported cash contributions and receipts for the election cycle totaling just over $31,000.

PNC-backed candidates are running in all four state education board races on the November ballot.

Marni Hodgen, who is endorsed by the PNC-PAC, is running against Neary in board district 8 in central Douglas County. She takes issue with Neary’s criticism of the group.

“Just because I want to protect kids from a hypersexualized and explicit curriculum about all sexual behavior doesn’t mean I’m against the LGBTQ+ community,” Hodgen said. “To say that is incredulous. Let’s let the kids be kids and focus on teaching them what we should be: reading, writing, arithmetic, history and science.”

The health education standards — and Neary’s role in developing them — has been a campaign issue.

According to texts and emails released through a public records request, Neary had urged the Nebraska Department of Education to use a former Planned Parenthood educator, employed by the Women’s Fund of Omaha, as an adviser in developing the standards. Neary says the adviser was an expert on sex education. She also says her actions were appropriate for a board member.

Robin Stevens, another incumbent board member who trailed his general election challenger Elizabeth Tegtmeier by nearly a 3-1 margin in the primary, said the PNC Coalition deserves the hate group label — though he said defining hate is problematic.

“If it’s simply to be telling untruths to try to bring a person down or an organization down, you know, so out-and-out lies, out-and-out falsehoods, well, yeah, then I would consider PNC a hate group,” he said.

Stevens, who describes himself as a conservative, said the group has wrongly painted him as a liberal. He said he has been falsely called a “groomer,” a “pedophile” and a “Marxist.”

Opponents of the standards have criticized him for not speaking out against the standards and for voting against a motion earlier this year to permanently scrap them.

Stevens said it’s hard for him to agree with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s reasons for labeling Family Watch International a hate group, but as for Family Watch itself, “it’s hard for me to buy into what they’re selling, too.

“If you’re going to attack LGBTQ people, come on, that’s just totally wrong. It isn’t that I agree with LGBTQ. It’s just they are people, and, you know, we’re told to love all people.”

Tegtmeier, his opponent, said the PNC-PAC endorsement is just one of many endorsements she has received.

“My campaign is not defined by one endorsement,” she said. “I have been endorsed by many groups, including the Nebraska Republican Party and the Nebraska Federation of Republican Women as well as many elected Nebraska officials.”

Tegtmeier also has received $20,000 from Ricketts.

She said her campaign is focused on issues: the teacher shortage, local control and concern over the state’s academic assessments.

In the other two education board races, the PNC committee endorsed Kirk Penner, a Ricketts appointee who faces Helen Raikes, and Sherry Jones, who faces Danielle Helzer.

As the election approaches, the sharp disagreements and harsh words show the fundamental differences in how the two sides view issues such as gender identity. Both accuse the other of pushing an extreme agenda; both see their own views as being the right way to do things.

To critics, for example, the PNC group’s opposition to teaching about gender identity amounts to an agenda that would marginalize LGBTQ children.

The PNC coalition leaders, in contrast, say the comprehensive sexuality education side is the one that is pushing an agenda.

Said Norton, the coalition lawyer: “We’re advocating that agendas be left at the door when kids walk into the classroom.”

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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