Monday, February 20, 2023

A Comedy of So Many Errors (Plus Censorship)

I attended my local school board meeting a few nights ago, and it was a doozy.

Little backstory first, though, for those of you unfamiliar with our little hamlet of Florida, NY. Our tiny school system, through some kind of miracle, hired a great new superintendent back in, what was it, 2021? One look at his resume, ten minutes of getting to know him, and you had to think, how the hell did we get this guy? Well, by 2022 he was gone. It’s a long, disgusting story, but at the school board meeting back in November of 2022, around the time this ejection took place, I was able to express my thoughts in an allotted two-minute statement, and it will shed some light on the events of that moment in our recent history around here:

Hi, my name is Tracy Stroh and I live in Florida, NY. 

When Larry Leaven was hired, I was delighted to learn that he was a former colleague of a family member who glowed about his leadership and told me, outright, what an absolute asset he would be to our schools. At the same time, I did feel a quiet, deep-down sense of worry that the political climate here wouldn’t be kind to him, because he happens to be a gay man, in a same-sex marriage, something he never felt the need to keep hidden, nor should he, nor should anyone, anywhere. 

I introduced myself to him soon after he arrived, and in our initial conversation he emphasized how warmly he’d been accepted and welcomed by the school board, as well as by the faculty. So it seemed like the best was yet to come, and I hoped my quiet, deep-down worry was for nothing. 

But it wasn’t for nothing. And what developed was worse than I could have imagined. A handful of very loud, very toxic voices swiftly created an environment that became so hostile and poisoned that no self-respecting professional would ever be able to carry on and thrive within it. 

I have seen the flood of social media hate-posts targeting him, insinuating everything from improper behavior with students, to embezzling, to Marxism, to anti-white racism (which isn’t a thing), and to everything in between. All without a shred of evidence or merit. 

I’m ashamed that this has happened in my town and incredibly sad that there weren’t enough of us on hand, loud and proud and organized enough to prevent it. The good news is that this has changed, many of us have been shocked out of denial and into awareness. So nothing like this will ever happen again. Not on our watch.

Thank you and good night.

So that happened. What I didn’t say at the time, and maybe I should have, is that the school board had recently been overtaken by a cadre of individuals–they ran as a team of three and called themselves “Team Florida.” This gang of three had one thing in common, and that was their alliance with a group that call themselves Moms for Liberty, a moniker that gives the rest of us a chuckle because of how much they love banning books they don’t like, but I digress. One of the pre-existing members was also affiliated with this group, so Moms for Liberty now has a lock on our school board, plain and simple. It was the constant, unrelenting abusive tactics by Moms for Liberty and their sympathizers that finally put the nail in the coffin of Larry Leaven’s service to our community. As I said in my remarks above, a professional of his pedigree was not going to be able to thrive in the festering cesspool the board had become. It was a fait accompli when the board went south like Sherman.

I wasn’t alone when I spoke out in Leaven’s behalf back in November 2022, by the way. Far from it. I had recently discovered and joined an organization called Defense of Democracy whose sole aim is to bring attention to, and get in the way of, the dangerously bigoted and fascist objectives M4L is trying to force down the throats of the the rest of us. We gathered together to support each other in publicly saying what needed to be publicly said. It was hard not to feel it was all too little too late for Mr. Leaven, but we at least got to say our piece, and at least we were heard. I also tried my hand at getting some newspapers to publish an op ed I wrote on the subject, and I was unsuccessful, so here it is, it was pretty decent, why waste it:

Dear Editor

There is no language strong enough to express my disgust and horror at the forces that caused Florida FUFSD to lose Superintendent of Schools Larry Leaven. My worst concerns about how Mr. Leaven would fare in a community tainted with hate groups like Moms for Liberty became a living nightmare over the past fifteen months, A consummate professional with a stellar background and history of excellent leadership in education was effectively run out of our town on a rail.

A flood of social media hate-posts has targeted Mr. Leaven from practically the moment he was hired. Demonstrably false defamatory statements like, “This is what happens when a Western ‘educator’ in Hong Kong who quickly garnered a reputation for extra attentiveness to small boys ‘suddenly’ flees Hong Kong and sidles into a small, rural school district” can be literally cut and pasted from a Village of Florida Facebook page. 

The local Moms for Liberty chapter had this to say (coupled with a cartoon of Mr. Leaven being slingshotted out of town by the Statue of Liberty): “Momma bears are relentless Mr Leaven. Take your pornographic indoctrination back where you came from. This is what happens when you mess with our children in OCNY. So long! Redman, get your wings ready, you are next ” This little gem not only defamed the superintendent about a controversial book in the school library that had been installed there at least one superintendent ago, but served as an unveiled threat to an existing school board member as well.

I suspect that a letter to the editor like this one will be met with a slew of hateful rhetoric in the comment thread that accompanies my words. It would be nice to be wrong about this, but if I’m right, bring it on, because it serves to illustrate the need for those of us with open minds and hearts to galvanize further. Knowledge is power. Our children are watching. Bullying was successful in removing Larry Leaven from his post at our school, where we needed him. Congratulations, bullies, but enjoy it while you can. We’re taking a page from your book and becoming loud and proud. We are organizing, and we will educate and activate the public so that nothing like this atrocity in our little town will ever happen again all because of a handful of toxic, hate-spewing individuals who are full of fire at their keyboards, but observably less so where the rubber meets the road.

And that was that. I sent it out. Crickets. Bummer.

So now, fast forward to last night, February 16, 2023. One of the agenda items pertained to the search for a new superintendent. The meeting thus began with a long, drawn out presentation by representatives from the search firm we taxpayers are paying to replace a superintendent who was wrongfully forced to leave in the first place. It was hard not to guffaw at all the glowing attributes that were going to be required for the star to be eventually hired. It was said, and I’m not making this up, that they intended to find someone how could “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” We chortled, without mirth, because in Larry Leaven, we already had what they’re describing. We had our Superman, and they ran him out of town.

So with all this in mind, I’d prepared another two-minute statement for the meeting. I worked long and hard to make sure it was well within the two minutes so as to respect the time constraints the Board commands we adhere to. As one of the agenda items was all about hiring a superintendent to replace the one they had jettisoned, I had no worries about being called out for being off-topic, because the very fact of that agenda item was the entire reason I was speaking in the first place. And here’s what I had to say:

I’m Tracy Stroh and I live in Florida, NY.  I represent the almost 800 people who have signed a petition voicing concerns over our school board’s association with the Moms for Liberty group. 

Moms for Liberty has a well documented reputation for banning books, denying America’s history of racism against non-whites, mocking and slandering the queer community, and attacking public education. Our hard working librarians and teachers are now under constant attack all across the nation. They often can’t express their concerns out of fear for their jobs. Some reach out to people like me, privately, thanking us for saying things in public that they can’t safely say themselves without risking their careers.

Such as:

You forced the resignation of an excellent superintendent with a stellar CV. You did this not only because he is openly gay, but also because he was clear on his goal to help us create an equitable and safe environment for all students, regardless of skin color or sexual orientation or gender identity or any other differences. You ousted him because he didn’t fit into your loud and proud “anti-woke” political agenda.

You have cost the taxpayers of this town over $300,000 to buy out his contract and to hire a search firm to replace him, which is unacceptable.

And finally, regarding an image that’s been circulating on social media:

This was taken from the public facebook page of a local Moms for Liberty member.  This image is a huge and dangerous fiction. The messaging is that the very existence of the queer community is an attack on the rest of society, and that is a hideous lie. It just so happens that false propaganda like this is to blame for atrocities as extreme as genocide. The Nazis were very successful with such scapegoating propaganda back in the 1930s and 40s. I hope we can all agree that we don’t want to go back there.  

I’m speaking out today because silence on these matters equals complicity.  

Thank you.

So….that’s what I had to say. But I didn’t get to say it. Approximately halfway through my two-minute spiel, the president of the board of education, Rob Andrade, stopped me in my tracks. He told me that I was not speaking to the agenda. That’s what his voice told me. His eyes told me I’d tread into dangerous territory and I was to shut my face or else. I argued, calmly I think, that indeed I WAS speaking to the agenda. I stood there for what felt like a looooong time, enduring his death stare, trying to reason with him that I should be able to complete the second minute of my two-minute remarks, and questioned why was he so adamant that I not finish. He insisted I was not following the rules–the rules that demand that I was to stick to the agenda. But indeed I WAS sticking to the agenda. I was, however, NOT sticking to HIS agenda.

It was clearly my reference to M4L that got me cancelled. But why? It’s not a secret society. They’re loud and proud and delighted with themselves. So why on earth should my referencing that all but one Board member is a M4L-er get me all that hater-ade?

Comically, right before it was time for regular people to step up to the mic and speak their minds, Rob the Prez read from his long flowery script about how we clearly live in polarizing times, so that it’s important that we respect each other, and that even though sometimes controversial topics might be introduced, the board understands and welcomes dissenting voices, just be civil, yada yada. Um, yeah.

So I sat my ass down, angry and embarrassed and having a hot flash. I don’t think I’ve ever been glared at with that kind of bare naked hatred before (or maybe I just haven’t been paying attention), and it does trip you up. But that’s not the end of the story.

Remember the horrifying image above with the rainbow flag pistol as if the entire lgbtq+ community exists solely to extinguish good white Christian men everywhere? Like it’s in the queer guidebook or something? Yeah, this one:

Well…guess what happened when the person who posted THAT little gem came up to speak.

How to describe it…we have video but I’m not sure I can publish it here and not get sued. She expressed her anger that people like us come to meetings to do a “dog and pony show,” then proceeded to deliver a diatribe on the pedophilia in our schools (in case you’re wondering, that wasn’t on the agenda). She then went on (again, not making this up) to read from an award-winning Young Adult novel that attempts to shed light on the sexual molestation of children. She picked excerpts out of context that lent no hint that the book is intended to bring to light a crime against children that remains in the dark and unreported because of how an abused child might not even have the psychological context to understand they’re being abused, and certainly not the language to report it.

At any rate, the speaker is passionate about the book being banned from the school library–a book, incidentally, that has been in the school library since 2017, way before the supe she hated like hell was even hired by the way. She stood there yammering out text from this book, while my friends and I looked at each other with wondering eyes, trying to figure out where THAT was on the agenda. And why SHE wasn’t being told to shut the fuck up like I’d been. She ended with a firm and ambiguous, “this is the trash they want to bring in from Buffalo, NY.” We were confused about this, being unaware of how Buffalo, NY, is responsible for bringing what she thinks are questionable books into our schools. Was it that Larry Leaven is from Buffalo? That wouldn’t make sense, all the books she bitches about were acquired before we were lucky enough to get him into our district. Is it that a few months ago a trans woman who is also a disabled veteran drove all the way from Buffalo to speak truth to hatred? Is she the “trash” that was being referred to? Or is there a secret book factory in Buffalo that churns out nothing but ban-worthy books? We may never know.

At any rate, this speaker was getting quite her chance to ramble, so we Defense of Democracy reps got a little vocal about it, which is bad form at a civilized public meeting, but since we were denied our voices when it was our turn, it was about the only way we’d be heard. It was only after threatening to shut down the meeting and have us ejected (US, not the book banner), that Mr. President finally told Ms. M4L that she’d made her point and needed to stop. She kept it up anyway. If we hadn’t pushed back by running our mouths from the peanut gallery, she’d still be there, reading from the stack of books she wants to see banned, presumably being shipped in from Buffalo.

Oh, little side note: This particular M4L-er, the one reading us her special bedtime story, happens to have been one of the most generous contributors to the campaign funds of Team Florida, our jolly little gang of three. I’m not telling tales out of school, it’s public information. That afforded her a leash quite a bit longer than a garbage-person like me is entitled to, I guess. And maybe they found out I have close ties to Buffalo, My mother was born there, oldest of eight, so my Buffalo family is legion. I suppose I should wear a scarlet “B” on my chest to the next meeting to identify myself to the public so that they can cut me a wide berth and not catch anything.

So here’s the takeaway. Fascism is scary. It’s scariest when it stares you right in the face with eyes glittering with malice. And if you’re shut down in a public forum where you have every right to speak but are denied, write the wordiest blog post you possibly can, get it all off your chest, and ask your friends to share it far and wide.

With all my love, always.

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