As he spoke to his students during a Zoom lesson earlier this month, the northern Virginia middle school social studies teacher called the attempted coup at the Capitol on Jan. 6 “a setup.”
He would know, he said. He was there.
“That’s what I witnessed. That’s what I saw,” teacher Benjamin Plummer can be heard saying in a video of the incident published by Fox 5 DC. “When I heard the media just blaming Trump supporters the whole time, I knew then that it was a setup.”
Plummer defended the mob that marched to the Capitol as “incredibly peaceful” and “Christians,” and instead told his young class at the diverse Fred M. Lynn Middle School that the summer’s Black Lives Matter protesters were to blame for “destroying cities.”
Plummer, who did not respond to a request for comment, was subsequently put on leave over his Zoom rant after a student recorded it and it was posted to Twitter. The Prince William County school district told local news outlets that while employees are permitted to “engage in political activity on their personal time,” they are not to do so during work hours or using school resources.
The district noted that employees who “engage in criminal activity which calls into question their fitness as a role model” may be fired, but there’s no evidence that Plummer actually participated in the storming of the Capitol and he has not been charged with any crimes.
A high school teacher in the district, who is a person of color and asked to remain anonymous so as not to risk his job, told BuzzFeed News he felt sick watching the video and worried how painful it was for students at the school, who he said are largely Latino, to sit through it.
“This wasn’t a teachable moment in any way — this was a monologue. It’s indoctrination of our kids,” the high school teacher said. “He violated that sacred trust that’s placed in us by parents, by society.”
Plummer is just one of several teachers who’ve faced consequences for their actions related to the insurrection. There’s the high school history teacher in Wisconsin under investigation for telling his students he was going to DC to defend “election integrity.” There’s the Florida substitute dismissed for telling students falsely the rioters were antifa. A Pennsylvania social studies teacher was suspended pending an investigation for attending the Trump rally before the Capitol attack and saying on Facebook he was “doing [his] civic duty.” And then there was the Cleveland school therapist who stormed the Capitol with a QAnon sign, resigned in a letter saying she was switching careers “to expose the global evil of human trafficking and pedophilia,” and was then arrested by the FBI.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup at the Capitol, Americans are contending with what we should do with the people who hold special roles in society — from police officers to politicians to military veterans — who took part in the day’s deadly events, as well as those who helped fan the flames of incitement by spreading the debunked conspiracies both before and after the attack. But the role played by the country’s teachers who participated or supported the coup has not been extensively discussed. The political atmosphere is so tense nationally that some teachers are even holding their tongues, or facing disciplinary consequences, as their conspiracy-minded colleagues poison the historical record. These educators, who like millions of other Americans wrongly believe the 2020 election was stolen, are not only responsible for teaching children what happened that day, they’re helping to build the next generation of voters.
“Schools are foundational to building democracy. It’s where students get their first taste of what it looks like to be part of an inclusive, multiracial democracy,” said Jessica Acee, a senior fellow at the Western States Center who coauthored a training toolkit on confronting white nationalism in schools. “So to have people who are espousing anti-democratic values, stories, hyperbole, misinformation to our students, it’s really dangerous because this is where they’re developing their sense of what it means to be an American.”
Jon Phetteplace was watching news reports about the Capitol attack with his family in Burlington, Wisconsin, on Jan. 6 and was stunned at what he was seeing. His stepson, though, was less shocked. The boy said his history teacher, Jeff Taff, would routinely go on long screeds about supposed election fraud, even when it had nothing to do with the lesson. Prior to traveling to DC for the “Stop the Steal” rally, Taff had even assigned the students a video from the conspiratorial Epoch Times that pushed debunked claims from Rudy Giuliani about “illegal” ballots.
Aghast, Phetteplace and his wife have since pulled their son out of Taff’s class.
“There’s no place for any of this, especially in a school, because you have kids that are learning and figuring themselves out and trying to find out who they are,” said Phetteplace. “We’re trusting you to mold these kids and help them find themselves through education, and you’re abusing that.”
A lawyer representing Taff told BuzzFeed News the assigned video was not “required viewing, nor promoted as truth” and “was simply a discussion point as it was breaking news.”
“There’s no place for any of this, especially in a school, because you have kids that are learning and figuring themselves out and trying to find out who they are.”
But screenshots of the lesson plan, viewed by BuzzFeed News, show the video was included alongside standard classwork and without any explanation beyond the teacher announcing the reason for his absence: “I am sorry, but standing up for election integrity and our right to vote in FAIR elections is too important for me to NOT be there,” Taff wrote.
Misled by former president Donald Trump’s extensive lies about his defeat, about a third of Americans, and two-thirds of Republicans, do not trust the election results and believe there was widespread fraud, despite a total lack of evidence. More than a sixth believe in the mass delusion of QAnon, roughly the same amount who don’t believe humans are causing climate change.
Teachers are naturally among them. Because of how they are scattered all across the US, educators can almost be viewed as something of a representative cross section of what the whole country believes, according to Meira Levinson, a Harvard University education professor and political philosopher. “Teachers are really evenly spread,” said Levinson. “They basically mirror the beliefs — including the false beliefs — of Americans.”
Of course, not every teacher who believes Trump’s lies went so far as to storm the Capitol (There is no evidence that Taff, the Wisconsin teacher, tried to do so, and his wife said in a Facebook post that he had not.) Some, including school bus drivers and gym teachers, just attended his rally beforehand, sparking debate in their communities about whether they should face discipline or whether it’s their right under the First Amendment, with the latter usually winning out.
“I would support someone’s right to protest, as vile as I may think that protest is,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers who was said to be among the final contenders for education secretary in Biden’s Cabinet. “[But] there’s a line between protest and violence. There’s a line between not liking the electoral result and engaging in a coup to change it.”
“More than anything else, teachers have to distinguish between what’s a real controversy and what’s a pseudo controversy.”
But what’s less clear is what approach should be taken with teachers who mix a civics or history education with false conspiracies, who can’t themselves determine between objective truth and lies.
“More than anything else, teachers have to distinguish between what’s a real controversy and what’s a pseudo controversy,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a University of Pennsylvania professor and education historian. “And a real controversy happens when the best-informed people disagree — a pseudo controversy is when they don’t.”
Such an example of a “pseudo controversy” might be climate change, where reasonable minds might debate how best to address it, but not whether it exists or whether it is caused by humankind. Another more complex example for Zimmerman is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was a flashpoint battle in schools for decades but which is now taught in the vast majority of schools without also teaching the religious view of intelligent design as if to suggest there is a scientific equivalence between the two.
For Zimmerman, the 2020 election is just another “pseudo controversy.”
“There isn’t, in my mind, a controversy about whether the election was stolen,” he said. “I know there are people who are saying it was stolen, but they’re like people who say we didn’t evolve from monkeys. It’s their right to say it, but I also think it’s the duty of schools to challenge misinformation and most of all to distinguish between legitimate controversies and fake ones.”
Teachers have a duty to educate students about the 2020 election, and all the chaos and nonsense and bloodshed that erupted out of it. And care must be taken to do so without rose-colored glasses, especially as the events become a distant memory. As anyone knows if they were taught that Columbus “discovered” America or Rosa Parks sat down on the bus because she was “tired,” history — especially as it’s delivered in schools — has a way of becoming sanitized beyond recognition.
But with the US stubbornly divided over politics, and one party seemingly embracing conspiracy theories and lies, the classroom is currently a fraught space.
Teachers across the political spectrum generally maintain boundaries around discussing their personal political beliefs in the classroom, and in many schools keeping tight-lipped is mandatory.
But the line isn’t always so clear-cut. While most schools teach the civil rights movement, some teachers faced backlash last year when they tried to teach about Black Lives Matter.
“What that does is teachers … [are] fearful they’re going to get in trouble, that their jobs are on the line if they actually try to deconstruct ‘the big lie.’”
The murkiness of what counts as “too political” can often lead to teachers just steering clear of lessons on controversial political topics altogether, according to Weingarten of the teachers union, who said this was especially true right now for educators in staunchly Republican areas.
The effect, she said, has been to create a climate of fear.
“Teachers are very avoidant of having any of these conversations in class for fear of being criticized that they’re being political, instead of civic-minded [in teaching] about the government,” said Weingarten. “What that does is teachers … [are] fearful they’re going to get in trouble, that their jobs are on the line if they actually try to deconstruct ‘the big lie.’”
Some have, in fact, gotten in hot water for this. A high school social studies teacher in Catoosa County, Georgia (a district near the Tennessee border that is represented in Congress by QAnon believer Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene), was this week forced to remove a post on the school’s online learning platform where he said there had been no evidence of voter fraud in the 2020 election.
“Most of the conspiracy theories involving the November election are centered on lies that cheating took place in cities that are predominantly African-American, places like Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Detroit,” Tom McMahan wrote in the post, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "These are not accidental lies being told, the implied racism behind them is very deliberate and needs to be called out for what it is."
“A civil society has to respect facts and the truth, even when the truth turns out differently than what we wished for,” he wrote. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but everyone is NOT entitled to their own FACTS.”
After parents complained, McMahan, who declined to comment to BuzzFeed News, was directed to take down the post. School officials said it was because McMahan had shared his “personal perspective” on “conspiracy theories, rumors and allegations that have not been litigated.”
But the school is wrong. There is, in fact, no evidence to support these election fraud claims. And they were, in fact, litigated; Trump filed more than 60 lawsuits in an attempt to prove the race was “stolen” from him — and he lost them all. McMahan was merely stating the truth.
The racism McMahan highlighted in his post has been present in classrooms for decades, where white teachers with conscious or unconscious biases have treated students of color in unfair ways that have lasting impacts on them. “These teachers are suspending Black kids and Hispanic kids more,” said the anonymous Virginia high school teacher. “So their politics have already been leaking into the classroom for a long time."
There are no quick antidotes to a nation poisoned by conspiracy theories. Giving students the tools to discern facts and form their own opinion will mean expanding media literacy training and civic education curriculums. But Acee, the Western States Center senior fellow, said it’s not just the students who will need these classes.
“People really need to jump on getting better professional development for faculty and staff so that they can better support students, [and] one really great place to start is with some digital literacy for our adults, as well as our students, so people know where misinformation is coming from, what it means, how to snuff it out, how to identify it,” said Acee. “We’re starting in a lot of circles to ask that of our students, but I haven’t seen anyone asking that of faculty and staff.” ●