Conservative activist groups — who oppose equity efforts and LGBTQ inclusion and advocate for the expansion of school choice programs, including charter schools and vouchers — are increasingly gaining influence over school board members and district administrators. Both the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR) and FEC United, which share a pool of members with other local activist groups like the Colorado Parent Advocacy Network (CPAN) and Advocates for D20 Kids, to name a few, have successfully lobbied school district leaders across the front range.
Building on a momentum generated in part by stoking outrage over critical race theory (CRT) and COVID-19 mask policies, these groups are now organizing members around issues relating to equity policies, policies for transgender students, and efforts at banning “controversial” books that contain LGBTQ content or are critical of the United States.
During Wednesday’s meeting of the Douglas County School District’s (DCSD) Equity Advisory Council, approximately 40 community members spent an hour watching the council work in small groups on recommendations for equitable recruiting, hiring, and retention practices in the district. Half of the community members wore shirts with rainbows, the other half wore gray t-shirts with the logo of United American Defense Force (UADF) — FEC United’s militia wing — or shirts with slogans like “Fuck Antifa.”
John Tiegen, the founder of UADF and a former Trump surrogate, was present for the meeting. The community presence at the council work session, which did not include an opportunity for public comment, was inspired by a call to action posted on social media by FEC United member Judi Reynolds which claimed that the council is “guided by Social Justice ideology” and is “actively trying to find a way to inject it into our schools.”
Equity advocates have long held that a diverse teaching staff, where marginalized students can see themselves represented, is important for student achievement and well-being. “Representation is huge for a lot of young folks,” said Liss Smith, the communications manager for Inside Out Youth Services, an El Paso County nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ youth. “We see in media, especially, [the message] that LGBTQ people just don’t have futures, so when young people are exposed to LGBTQ adults then they have this sense of like, ‘Oh, I could be a teacher, I could be a coach, I could be a doctor.’ Whatever this person in their life happens to be, it gives them a sense that these people who are like them are everywhere and have lives and are humans. So often we’re dehumanized in media and we’re dehumanized by people who want to take away our rights. Just having those individual connections can be literally life-saving for young people. We know that having one trusted adult in a young person’s life can reduce the risk of suicide by 40%, according to a study by the Trevor Project. That’s a huge number, and oftentimes, especially LGBTQ young people will be more likely to trust an adult who they know is LGBTQ to come out to or to talk through issues of gender and sexuality, and to be able to have conversations that they may not be able to have with other people or may not be comfortable having with other people just yet. So having people in leadership positions who are LGBTQ can completely change the environment of the school for the better.”
FEC United is the conservative activist group founded by the Douglas County conspiracy theorist and podcaster Joe Oltmann, which has been heavily involved in Republican politics in Douglas and El Paso Counties. “FEC” represents the group’s three pillars: faith, education, and commerce. The faith pillar is associated with a number of far-right evangelical churches, like Fervent Church in Colorado Springs, which hosted Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk in March, where he encouraged Christians to take a firmer stance against LGBTQ people. The education pillar has worked to organize school board protests against mask mandates and critical race theory. Oltmann, host of the Conservative Daily podcast, has repeatedly claimed teachers are “recruiting kids to be gay,” and he’s also said that LGBTQ teachers should be “dragged behind a car until their body parts fall off.” The commerce pillar promotes the MLM-esque “People’s Chamber of Commerce,” which offers a $500 affiliate membership program to patriot-minded business owners.
According to reporting from Newsbreak contributor Suzie Glassman, DCSD Superintendent Erin Kane was a member of FEC United’s education pillar Facebook group. Kane told Glassman, “Over the years, I have watched many Facebook pages and groups to see what conversations were taking place about education—that does not mean I’m a member of, or even affiliated with, any particular group. That said, I haven’t even been active on Facebook in well over a year (the last time I posted to my personal page was September 2021).”
Kane has since deleted her Facebook account, but she is not the only DCSD employee involved with FEC United. Sierra Middle School teacher Matt Rogers is also a member of the organization, and in 2021 hosted a Zoom call for education pillar members with Pam Benigno of the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank, and Will Johnson of FAIR. Johnson also ran as a bonus member for the Douglas County Republican Party.
FAIR, like FEC United, has been successful at courting members of DCSD. DCSD’s Equity Advisory Council (EAC), which is made up of DCSD staff, parents, and community members, also includes a designated FAIR representative, Laureen Boll.
“They raised a lot of concerns initially about the educational equity policy,” said DCSD board member David Ray. “I — and certainly the board — didn’t organize this advisory council. It was really a superintendents committee and still is. I think the superintendent kind of felt like was a way to validate that voice that was raising the concern and give them kind of a seat at the table, if you will, to continue to have a conversation about what the policies are.”
The EAC was formed under former superintendent Corey Wise, who was fired in February by the newly elected conservative majority on the DCSD board. Emails show that Boll and Johnson were lobbying DCSD administrators for a position on the EAC as early as July 2021.
“As for joining the Equity Advisory Council, the framework is currently being created,” wrote DCSD board member Susan Meek on July 8, 2021 in an email to Douglas County’s chapter of FAIR. “This includes the bylaws and community engagement processes. Currently, 1-2 members from the following existing and broad stakeholder groups in the DCSD participate in the informal planning meetings: DCSD Student Advisory Group, Douglas County Special Education Advisory Council, Douglas County Gifted Education Advisory Council, Conexíon, District Accountability Committee, MTSS Strategic Planning Team, DCSD Board of Directors, DCSD Cabinet, and the Employee Council. I am one of the two BOE liaisons to this group. It is important to note these groups include DCSD staff, parents, and community members. It’s my understanding that once bylaws are finalized and approved by the DCSD legal team and the Equity Advisory Council is officially a council, membership and participation will be implemented according to the bylaws.”
FAIR, a national organization, was founded in May 2021 by Bion Bartning, an entrepreneur and investor who grew gravely concerned that his daughters were being exposed to critical race theory at their $54,000 a year private school, and Bari Weiss, a former New York Times opinion editor who covered figures of the “intellectual dark web” like beef and benzo enthusiast Jordan Peterson and anti-Islam and race science enthusiast Sam Harris before quitting over what she perceived as the intolerant “woke culture” at the legacy publication. Weiss is currently working on the “Twitter files” non-scandal with Matt Taibbi, the former Rolling Stone writer who also blames his fall from social relevance on “woke culture.”
Both Bartning’s and Weiss’s influence is evident in FAIR. Despite its deceptive name, the organization is a vehicle for wealthy and entitled parents — like those in Douglas County or the affluent northern suburbs of Colorado Springs — to advocate against measures promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, including those aimed at the LGBTQ community. FAIR’s Board of Advisors consists of a host of disgraced academics and journalists, many of whom have been accused of racism, pushing race science, climate change denial, sexual assault, and homophobia transphobia.
The Colorado Times Recorder has filed a Colorado Open Records Act request with DCSD for all email communications between DCSD staff and members of FAIR, in order to determine the extent to which the recently-formed right-wing organization has been able to influence policy within the district, but Ioana Marin, a paralegal with DCSD, claimed, “Our search engine does not have that capability.”
DCSD is not the only school district in Colorado that has been targeted by FAIR. Members of FAIR were regular public commenters during Colorado Springs School District 11. During a Jan. 12 D11 board meeting, Joseph Boyle, of the El Paso-Teller chapter of FAIR, criticized D11’s equity efforts. According to emails obtained from D11 — which does have a search engine capable of compiling all emails from FAIR to district employees — Boyle, who is now retired, used his district email account to join FAIR. Judith Sears, another FAIR member, asked Fair’s chapter network support specialist, Jessie Enloe, about the district hiring Daryl Davis, a FAIR senior fellow, for FAIR’s diversity training after speaking with a D11 teacher.
Ultimately, D11 dissolved its department of equity and inclusion in April, by a 4-2 vote from the new conservative majority. The move came nearly a month after the resignation of D11’s newly hired superintendent, Michael Thomas.
The content of D11’s library books is currently under scrutiny from local activist group D11 Achievement Alliance, which is concerned about what it describes as sexually explicit content in books. One of the titles targeted by the Alliance is Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker.
“We don’t believe in censorship of our identities,” said Smith. “We also know that young people are mature enough to handle complex issues and complex discussions and complex acts. They can read and understand them. I think it actually shows a lot of disrespect to teenagers, to youth, to think that they just aren’t ready for certain kinds of material. What people are calling pornographic is literally just depictions of queer people existing. That comes back to identity as being sexualized, which on its own is completely inappropriate. We don’t believe in censoring these books. Everyone should be able to have access to information and access to representation. On a personal note, I didn’t know gay people existed until I was 14, and I read it in a book that I got from my school library. There was a gay character and it changed my life, knowing that I wasn’t the only one, and that happens every single day. People feel seen and represented and we can’t take that away from our kids.”
The D11 Achievement Alliance is one of many “grassroots” activist groups targeting Colorado Springs school districts with overlapping membership in conservative political activist groups like Spunky Patriots and FEC United.
Some of the activists include Joel Sorensen, a former legislative aide for former Republican Rep. Tim Geitner (R-Falcon) and the current spokesperson for the D11 Achievement Alliance and vice chair of Advocates for D20 Kids, a similar group that has been a fixture at Academy School District 20 Board of Education meetings since the election of a conservative majority last year. Derek Wilburn, the host of the Uncle Tom Talks podcast, which is hosted on Oltmann’s Conservative Daily website, along with Tiegen’s Modern Patriot podcast, spoke at Church For All Nations in September on behalf of Advocates for D20 Kids. Church For All Nations’ pastor is Mark Cowart, who regularly appears on Andrew Wommack’s Truth and Liberty livecast. This summer, Church for All Nations hosted racist former Republican Congressman Steve King. During his appearance at Church for All Nations, Wilburn complained about the influence of the Satanic Temple, a Naruto manga, and shared information about the political affiliations of D20 principals. Later, Wilburn took part in a panel discussion with Cowart and pastor Calvin Johnson, who falsely claimed sexual orientation is a choice. Cowart promoted the website Gays Against Groomers, which along with Libs of TikTok, has been cited in connection with increased harassment and violence against the LGBTQ community.
“The majority of the community, that is not trans, especially in a Christian community like D20, should not be forced to acquiesce to something they don’t support,” said Wilburn, who also claimed the LGBTQ community has “special rights.”
The day after Douglas County’s EAC meeting, D20 held their regular board meeting, which featured a divided slate of public commenters, half of them wearing red shirts in support of a newly formed organization, Defense of Democracy, and others wearing blue shirts in support of Advocates for D20 Kids. Defense of Democracy members were concerned about emails released via CORA that detailed conversations between Advocates for D20 Kids Chairman Brian Moody and D20 Superintendent Tom Gregory regarding guidance around bathroom access for transgender students, and a suggestion that the district create a separate campus for LGBTQ students.
“I think I can safely say the board has never discussed, would never discuss, and in fact would condemn any thought of separating students at schools based on anything except parental choice,” said D20 Board of Education President Tom LaValley. “In addition, there is no board policy on bathrooms, there has never been such a policy, nor has there been any discussion relating to any sort of board policy regarding bathrooms. Neither of these two topics has come up at any board meeting or work session.”
Gregory clarified his guidance on bathroom access in a recent interview with the Colorado Springs Independent.
“At the end of the day, we must honor the student’s request,” he said.
Advocates for D20 Kids isn’t just meeting with D20’s superintendent. “We also met with Tom [LaValley] and [D20 board member] Nicole [Konz] this morning in our twice-a-month meeting,” wrote Moody in a Facebook post in the Advocates for D20 Kids group. “We covered wide ranging topics from the superintendent search, to book reviews to GSA content, to transgender policies. My vibe from the meeting is that [LaValley] and [Konz] are part of this team, they think the way we do, are passionate about what we are passionate about. We are all fighting against the progressive agenda together as a team.”
During last week’s board meeting, LaValley denied being a member of Advocates for D20 Kids, although both he and Konz are members of the private Advocates for D20 Kids Facebook group. LaValley and Konz are also both members of the private FEC United- Education Pillar Facebook group. LaValley and Konz did not respond to the Colorado Times Recorder’s emailed request for comment.
D20 isn’t the only district with board members who have ties to FEC United. In District 49, which eastern Colorado Springs and El Paso County, where last year the board voted to ban critical race theory, Board of Education members Ivy Liu, Jamilynn D’Avola, and Lori Thompson are also members. Thompson said in an email, “I am not a member of FEC and do not plan to be,” and noted that she has since left the Facebook group.
D49 Board of Education President John Graham said in an email, “D49 is not affiliated with FEC United. D49 values all people in accordance with our cultural compass and comply with all anti-discrimination statutes. Our goal is to treat all people with dignity and respect as we value their contributions as individuals. We also strive to welcome and educate all students that enter into our schools.”
Liu was censured last month, due to her incendiary rhetoric that led to the resignation of two of the district’s top executives. In April, Liu was removed from her board assignments due to public statements and Facebook posts that Graham and other board members claim led to harassment campaigns against board members and a “toxic” environment.
D’Avola, who has quoted faux historian and Truth and Liberty member David Barton during board meetings, was the subject of a March letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to D49, regarding D’Avola “proselytizing a student.”
Liu and D’Avola did not respond to the Colorado Times Recorder’s emailed request for comment.
The ability of activist groups like FAIR and FEC United to wield influence over board members and administrators is not one shared across the political spectrum. “We have some really powerful partnerships with some district officials in various school districts in the area,” said Smith. “When it comes to actually arranging meetings or only getting into schools to offer trainings or to offer resources, it has been a lot harder. Oftentimes we’ll send an email with no response or make a phone call with no response. What we believe is happening is that we’re just controversial at this point because LGBTQ identities have been so politicized.”
A common ideological element for groups like FAIR, FEC United, D11 Achievement Alliance, and Advocates for D20 Kids is the concept of “parents’ rights,” the idea that parents should control public education. It is a concept that was popularized by the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a Christian organization that views children as property of their parents.
“Our nation was founded upon the traditions of Western civilization,” wrote founding president Michael Farris in a 2011 HSLDA newsletter. “This civilization was founded on the principles of the Word of God. God gives children to parents — not to the state, and not to doctors. In cases like this one, our legal system must remain steadfast in following the principle that God has delegated these kinds of decisions to parents, not to doctors, social workers, or courts.”
In conversations around parents’ rights, Smith notes that it is often a specific type of parent whose rights are being considered. “There isn’t one kind of parent either,” said Smith. “As much as people claim it’s my right as a parent to decide that these materials shouldn’t be in the library, there are other parents who believe that they should. It is shortsighted to see this broad parents’ rights movement and for all administrators, educators, board members to believe that that is the view of parents. It’s the view of certain very vocal parents, but it’s not the view of everyone. And again, it comes down to constituents and constituents being represented by their districts.”
Like FEC United, HSLDA’s founder is a Christian conservative who, in addition to activism against public education, has attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 election. In addition to his work for HSLDA, Farris is also the president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the organization waging lawfare against LGBTQ people and abortion. ADF was founded in 1993 by a group of Christian conservatives that included Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ and one of the founders of the Seven Mountain Mandate, and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson.
Last year, Reynolds, the FEC United member who issued the call to action for last week’s DCSD EAC meeting and a homeschool parent, appeared on the Serious Shot podcast, which is hosted by members of the Colorado Health Choice Alliance, where Reynolds, in addition to discussing COVID-19 conspiracies, discussed the HSLDA and the Christian Home Educators of Colorado, a group which employs Rep. Stephanie Luck’s (R-Penrose) policy director, Carolyn Martin.
It is under the guise of parents’ rights that these conservative activist groups have launched a concerted attack on LGBTQ youth across Colorado. While they claim to be pushing back against the “progressive agenda,” it is in reality a one-sided battle. While groups like FAIR and FEC United complain about equity polices or teachers wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts, trans youth across the state are consistently discriminated against, despite Colorado’s broad nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Earlier this year, Monument Academy, a charter school in Lewis-Palmer School District 38, the home district of El Paso County’s Moms For Liberty chapter, passed a proclamation stating, “The Board believes that the current Colorado legislation referred to as S.B. 08-200 and H.B. 21-1108, jeopardizes the innocence, wellbeing, privacy and safety of our students” and that “the Board believes that the use of sex-specific common bathroom and the use of a sex-specific common locker room by the individual who is of the biological sex is protected by the right to privacy from an individual who ‘expresses’ or ‘identifies’ as a non-biological gender under Amendment IV of the Constitution of the United States of America.”
School districts that attempt to pass policies to bring the district into alignment with Colorado law, like Fremont County School District this August, are met with fierce opposition from parents and elected officials who use public comment to decry LGBTQ people as “groomers” and “mentally ill.”
Recently in Colorado Springs, the Vanguard School, a charter school in Harrison School District 2, denied a transgender student access to her homecoming dance under the school’s illegal crossdressing policy.
At Banning Lewis Ranch Academy, a charter school in D49, a teacher presented a lesson in a civics class based on the case of swimmer Lia Thomas.
“A biological female(born female) swimming athlete who identifies as female is racing in a swimming event,” reads the assignment. “In the same event is a biological male(born male) who is transgender who identifies himself as female is racing in the same event. The transgender wins the swimming event with the female athlete coming in second. Now answer this question: Was this a fair competition for the biological female athlete to have to compete against someone who was born biological male? Please answer Yes or No and then write a short justification for your position. Be prepared to discuss this in class.”
Lindsey Lee, the co-chair of Neighbors for Education, said the assignment is an example of the kinds of discrimination faced by LGBTQ students in Colorado Springs. “It’s just a horrifically transphobic description of a trans swimmer versus a cisgender swimmer,” she said. “It was meant to be kind of thought exercise or question. The language is just so highly biased, it’s hard to even imagine how a student could answer that question correctly. Then after that, I think what might even be more troubling is that the teacher broke the students up into groups based on gender, so there was a boys group and a girls group, and they were supposed to discuss their responses. At that point, the student I’m in touch with just they decided they were uncomfortable with the whole exercise and walked out.”
Lee notes that like D’Avola, this teacher is also a fan of Barton, and uses his materials in class.
For Smith, this is another example of the disparity between the influence wielded by anti-LGBTQ activists and the LGBTQ community. “Teachers have so much power in a school environment to create spaces that are either affirming or not,” they said. “This is not only through how they address students or whether they respect the student’s pronouns. It’s also through how they decide to teach their subject matter. And if they decide to bring their own politics into a class that shouldn’t be discussing politics — especially shouldn’t be discussing politics in a way that dehumanizes people who are directly affected by these issues, because the reality is people directly affected by these issues are in these classrooms.”