Editorial: Time to join the culture war fight in schools

Editorial: Time to join the culture war fight in schools

The latest salvo in a nationally funded culture war attack on public education took place in East Williston in March as the far right took aim at Nassau County.

Project Veritas, a right-wing group known for deceptively edited exposé videos with ties to prominent conservative and Republican groups, released a posting on Instagram of David Casamento discussing the teaching of diversity, equity and inclusion in public schools.

Casamento had worked as director of technology in East Williston, but had left in 2017. He is now assistant superintendent for the East Meadow School District,

Even though Casamento left East Williston six years ago, more than 100 people attended the meeting of the school district school board. Many parents expressed anger with what they saw on the video posted.

Andrea Gallo, a parent and longtime resident of East Williston, expressed her frustration with the DEI initiative, which she claimed teaches children that they are “either racist or anti-racist — no in-between.”

For the record the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion movement is intended to make people of all backgrounds and beliefs feel welcome – something one would think would be appreciated in an increasingly diverse school district such as East Williston.

The East Williston meeting took place around the same time a Project Veritas video was being released of Donald Gately, who oversees the Manhasset School District’s instruction and personnel, also discussing the teaching of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The video was taken at EdCamp, an organization described on its website as “a grassroots, teacher-led event that brings together educators from across the region to share their ideas and expertise.” Gately co-founded the group in 2012.

Gately’s sin: He said teachers now have kids with some parents who are “extremely conservative and right-wing.”

“Now you’re gonna have people make – they’re gonna connect politics to DEI work,” Gately continued.

Other videos from Project Veritas alleged that the Manhasset school district discriminated in the hiring of individuals based on “political and religious beliefs.”

An email signed by “Manhasset Parents” called for an immediate investigation into Gately.

Manhasset Superintendent Gaurav Passi said in an email to parents the claims made by Project Veritas would be a cause for concern if the organization’s claims had any validity. But they don’t.

The problem is that whether or not the comments are true some parents will believe them, stoking fears and increasing divisiveness.

Meryl Fordin, a physical education teacher at North Side School in East Williston, called for the East Williston school board to affirm its support for the district’s faculty and staff. And recognize what Project Veritas was trying to do.

“What these videos actually show are educators doing their jobs; teachers making good faith attempts to serve their students and communities while expressing caution and awareness that these are very sensitive issues… [Project Veritas and its allies] threaten our students, the cohesion of our community and the integrity of our profession,” Fordin said.

It also threatens good-faith efforts to improve the quality of education everywhere – including the North Shore.

Mario Balaban, Project Veritas’ media relations manager, told Blank Slate Media last week the organization’s presence at EdCamp Long Island was part of an initiative launched in the fall of last year called “The Secret Curriculum.”

“We attend all sorts of events and we became aware of [EdCamp Long Island] and we just wanted to investigate and see what was going on in schools in the region,” Balaban said in a phone interview.

Project Veritas claims that they are acting as journalists in their work. They are not. They will misidentify themselves in gathering information, selectively edit material for partisan reasons and not give subjects a chance to respond to allegations – all violations of newspaper ethics and protocols.

And their secret gathering of information will only discourage open discussions by teachers and administrators trying to develop better ways to teach students.

What educators will want to talk frankly if their comments will be taken out of context and posted in their school district?

Balaban said the work Project Veritas does should not be viewed in a partisan light because videos showing what educators are saying are not prompted by a political agenda.

“We at Project Veritas don’t see anything political about informing parents and the community, wherever it might be, about what teachers or educators are saying about how they educate, and on occasions, indoctrinate children.”

This, too, is ludicrous.

Project Veritas was founded by James O’Keefe in 2010 to discredit mainstream media organizations, progressive groups, academic, government and service organizations.

The organization is known to use entrapment to generate bad publicity for its targets and has propagated disinformation] and conspiracy theories in its videos and operations.

It famously failed to plant a false story about Senate candidate Roy Moore in The Washington Post as part of a months-long campaign to infiltrate The Post and other media outlets in Washington and New York. The effort was exposed by the Post.

The organization has been funded by right-wing, dark money groups, which due to its status as a charitable organization is exempt from disclosing its donors or paying federal income taxes. In return, it is supposed to abstain from campaign activity.

O’Keefe became a member of Crowdsourcers for Culture and Liberty, an activist group led by Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in 2019 specifically to wage a cultural battle against the left.

Virginia Thomas said O’Keefe was among the “culture warriors” needed to oppose “cultural Marxism” and “eroding the pillars of our country.”

O’Keefe served as chairman of Project Veritas until he separated from the organization in February 2023 amid controversy over his handling of finances and his management style.

But clearly Project Veritas’ mission has not changed.

They are also not alone in a “parents rights” movement funded by right-wing groups that is meant to empower conservative and reactionary parents and politicians to dictate education and curriculums to the rest of the community.

We have seen in states like Florida, Tennessee and Texas where laws have been passed to stop even the mention of same-sex couples, bar Black history AP classes and books that touch on racism in this country. Some districts even banned an award-winning storybook on the Holocaust.

Two weeks ago, the Nassau County Republican Party hosted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis whose education policies resulted in schools in his state stripping books from the shelves for fear of violating the law.

We have also seen the movement to ban books in an election for the Great Neck Library Board last year where some candidates were calling for restrictions on books related to families headed by same-sex couples.

And at a Great Neck school meeting in 2021 a handful of parents attended to protest how issues regarding race were being taught in classrooms. Concerns were raised about creating white guilt.

We have seen this movie before. Slavery and Jim Crow laws that followed Reconstruction somehow did make the school curriculum in many places.

The large majority of book bans underway today are not “spontaneous, organic expressions of citizen concern,” according to PEN America, an association representing authors. “Rather, they reflect the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.

Rory Lancman, a former New York State assemblyman and New York City councilman who was appointed executive director of the LIPA Commission, recognized the threat to Great Neck by running for the library board.

He won and was elected president.

More of those in the majority on this debate need to join Lancman by getting involved.

There is a war going on whether you know it or not.

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