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The Fight Over Critical Race Theory Is Tearing This Town Apart

Panic over critical race theory has bitterly divided the seaside town of Guilford, Connecticut. A pivotal school board election could change everything.

Posted on November 1, 2021, at 5:09 p.m. ET

Last year, after George Floyd’s murder by police, Kara Fikrig, a white 28-year-old working on her doctorate in entomology at Cornell University (“mosquitoes,” she explained), began to reflect on the ways her small hometown of Guilford, Connecticut, hadn’t adequately prepared her for difficult conversations about race and racism.

As an undergraduate at Yale, Fikrig said, she “wasn’t immediately exposed to different ideas in terms of diversity and a more complete history of the United States.” But her best friend at undergrad was Black, and in their discussions about news events and campus goings-on, Fikrig said, “It came to light that I had a lot of misunderstandings about the current status of racism in the US.” What followed was “a lot of introspection, and a lot of reading,” which further revealed to her the many holes she’d had in her high school education. Fikrig decided that one tangible impact she could have on her own community would be “bringing to light the fact that those holes do, in fact, exist.”

Fikrig started posting on Facebook in various groups dedicated to Guilford, Connecticut, an idyllic community steeped in colonial history and home to a little over 20,000 people on the Long Island Sound shoreline. She and some other alumni formed a working group and drafted an email to the Guilford Board of Education, which they shared across social media. Over 200 people ended up reaching out to the board, advocating for an audit of the curriculum along with a call to hire teachers from more diverse communities, and — first things first — retiring Guilford’s racist school nickname and mascot, the Indians.

“It was like that scene in Harry Potter where the letters won’t stop,” remembered Mary Best, 54, a clinical psychologist who has sat on the school board as a Democratic member for the past four years. (Connecticut is one of the only states that ties Board of Education elections to party affiliations. Most others, like neighboring New York, hold nonpartisan elections for local school districts.) “In March 2020, there was one email after another, at first a few, then 20, then 50, then hundreds: ‘Our education was not enough, we’re going off to college, we’re embarrassed, we’re ashamed.’ It really touched us. Our young people are pretty amazing, I have to say.”

To Fikrig, pushing for changes in the Guilford public school system wasn’t only about helping students avoid embarrassing faux pas later on in life. Every year, about 250 students graduate from Guilford High School and go out into the world, and Fikrig worries that they might “actively cause harm” in their new and likely more diverse communities. (Guilford is 96% white.) Overall, she thinks growing up in an environment that promotes “color blindness” — the “I don’t see color” school of thought on race — impedes real progress toward a more equitable society.

Moira Rader, 51, a Democrat, mother of four, and the secretary of the board, recalled the “ripple effect” following Floyd’s murder. “We were hearing from so many recent alumni and community members, saying, ‘Can we talk about our mascot?’” Rader said. “We ran Zoom forums and brought in amazing experts who could speak to tribal history so we could better understand all the reasons why we should be sunsetting this mascot and thinking of something new.”

Philip Keith for BuzzFeed News

Moira M. Rader, Democrat and the secretary of the school board

The Board of Education ultimately voted in favor of replacing the high school’s mascot, and handed over the task of picking a new one to the student body, which voted to become the Grizzlies in December 2020. “It was a great learning exercise for our kids,” Rader said. From there, the board took on more difficult conversations: “How can we look deeper? How can we do better? Let’s be really thoughtful about this,” Rader said. “How do we support our teachers in professional development opportunities? How can we engage outside experts? How can we plan committee workshops with the board to better examine curriculum within the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion?”

“That poked the bear,” she said.

It was Freeman’s decision to spend about $6,000 of Guilford’s school budget on Ibram X. Kendi’s bestselling book How to Be an Antiracist for the district’s teachers that pushed some Guilford parents over the edge. 

Over the past year, Superintendent Paul Freeman has spearheaded an equity and social justice initiative in the district, which has included contracting a part-time family equity liaison with whom parents and students can address issues of discrimination, participating in the Connecticut Teacher Residency Program to bring more educators of color to Guilford schools, and self-auditing the curriculum, beginning with language arts and social studies. According to the district website, this is “to ensure that all students can see themselves represented in the materials used in their classes and to be sure that teachers are comfortable and skillful in addressing uncomfortable topics like historical or current examples of systemic racism in ways that are balanced and fair and open to all perspectives.”

To many Guilford High School alumni, administrators, and community members, these were merely the first steps toward addressing entrenched inequities in the district. But to an increasingly vocal group of townspeople, bringing relatively entry-level diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to Guilford was seemingly evidence of a Marxist, racist plot against white students and their parents.

It was Freeman’s decision to spend about $6,000 of Guilford’s school budget on Ibram X. Kendi’s bestselling book How to Be an Antiracist for the district’s teachers that pushed some Guilford parents over the edge. Freeman quickly became one of hundreds of school leaders across the country to be accused of peddling indoctrination and hate speech via critical race theory. One mother of three named Danielle Scarpellino, who didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on this story, started a Change.org petition last year calling for Freeman’s resignation or dismissal, arguing that he had “violated the Board of Education Policy by utilizing property of Guilford Public Schools on school time to disseminate material which included partisan political resources denigrating a particular political party and its supporters.” She would end up running for a Board of Education seat alongside four other Republican parents concerned about critical race theory in Guilford schools, calling themselves “Parents for Guilford Students” via their grassroots coalition “Truth in Education.”

Critical race theory, or CRT, is a theoretical framework for examining how US social institutions have been infused with and perpetuate racism. It originated in the 1970s, among legal scholars such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Stripped of its academic contexts, CRT has now become the far right’s latest bogeyman. So far, at least 10 states — Idaho, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, Arizona, and South Carolina — have in some form aimed to prohibit teaching that suggests, for example, that the US is in any way inherently racist — a direct repudiation of the New York Times’ controversial 1619 Project, which places slavery at the center of the US’s founding narrative. These bans also include discussions of privilege, discrimination, and oppression; dozens more states are considering similar legislation.

But there has been some pushback. Earlier this month a Texas superintendent was forced to apologize to his district after one of his top officials told teachers to provide students learning about the Holocaust with “opposing” perspectives. And on Oct. 19, in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, a coalition of educators and civil rights groups including the ACLU sued Oklahoma over its anti-CRT ban, which restricts what can be taught about race and gender in the state’s public schools and universities. The suit argues that HB 1775 is discriminatory, overly broad, and unconstitutionally censorious of students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights.

Philip Keith for BuzzFeed News

People gather at a Halloween event sponsored by the school board Democrats in Guilford.

Meanwhile, back in Guilford, a Republican caucus held in July saw Scarpellino and her fellow newcomers challenge the Republican incumbents and outscore them 2–1. Alarmed, the incumbents, alongside other moderate Republicans in town, petitioned for a primary, hoping that a wider swath of voters would restore them to their positions. But they were in for a rude awakening: The primary, held in September, drew unusually high turnout, nearly half of the town’s registered Republicans, and the anti-CRT candidates were once again triumphant — this time, with an even larger margin for victory.

“I think the results of the election are critical for the identity of Guilford, frankly.”

“We were thunderstruck,” Best said. Since the school board consists of four Democrats, four Republicans, and one swing seat, the Truth in Education slate is putting all its candidates on the ballot for November, rather than the minimum of four, to maximize their chances of flipping the board and gaining majority power.

The primary results catapulted Guilford into the national spotlight. “I believe we won simply because we are fighting for our children,” Scarpellino said in an interview on Fox & Friends. “They’re the most vulnerable members of our society, and they have no voice. They’re being used as political pawns. … We’re not politicians. There’s nothing in it for us except for taking back parental rights that are ours.”

Another anti-CRT Republican candidate and Guilford parent, Bill Maisano, paraphrased Freeman’s condemnation of a “color-blind” approach to education on the Fox & Friends segment. “I would prefer to follow the teachings of Dr. King,” Maisano said, “and judge people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.”

According to local bylaws, the school board can never have more than a slim majority of either party represented. In August, the Independent Party of Connecticut endorsed five candidates in a “fusion” slate called “Protect Guilford Schools” to oppose the Truth in Education candidates, including one of the Democratic incumbents, Moira Rader, and three independent newcomers. They joined the race in the hopes of sidestepping the bare majority bylaw, which would otherwise guarantee at least some of the anti-CRT Republicans would be seated after the November elections.

One of those independents is Kristy Faulkner, a molecular biologist with a master’s degree in education who has three children in Guilford public schools. She’d always been heavily involved in the community (she’s the cochair of Guilford’s special education PTO, and she sits on the town’s zoning board), and the week of the Republican caucus “really woke me up to what was going on in our town, and what was really at stake here,” she said. “When else in my life will I have an opportunity to show our children to fight for what you believe in? You stand up for what you believe in, and you do what scares you.”

“One of the weirdest things about this whole thing is that a lot of this is happening between people who have known each other for years.”

“One of the weirdest things about this whole thing is that a lot of this is happening between people who have known each other for years,” said 29-year-old Emily Breeze, a playwright in New York City who grew up in Guilford (and who is, disclosure, a close childhood friend of mine). “It doesn’t surprise me that a huge chunk of Guilford were basically unactivated white supremacists. It does surprise me that people didn’t know these things about their friends and neighbors and spouses. I think suburbia does a lot to prevent people from talking to each other.”

When Best first became a board member in 2017, she didn’t have any political experience with working across the aisle, and she was wary of the ugliness in national politics. “We were told over and over that the country is completely divided, that we can’t talk to each other,” she said. “But then at board meetings every single month, I saw Democrats and Republicans work together. This is how this country is supposed to be run! Sure, I have my personal political beliefs, and I know my counterpart does, but we put that aside for the kids.”

Now, after having collaborated with her Republican colleagues for four years, “watching them work so hard and knowing what they bring to the table, it’s very upsetting to see that they lost their spots.” She added, “I think the results of the election are critical for the identity of Guilford, frankly.”

The many Guilford parents and community members who have stepped up to oppose the TIE candidates — by attending countless Board of Education meetings, starting grassroots campaigns in support of diversity in education, or deciding to run for the board themselves — have done so because they’re adamant that the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. Many community members told me they’re worried that even if the anti-CRT candidates are resoundingly defeated, this once tight-knit town might not be able to bounce back from campaign season’s vitriol. After all, the district is still in the process of implementing its new diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. What’s next for Guilford — and similar towns across the country — remains, disconcertingly, an open question.

Rader pointed out that the Guilford school district has a huge impact on property values. People move their families to Guilford specifically for the top-ranked schools; Freeman was recently awarded Superintendent of the Year by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. Schools reflect the stability of a community, attract new businesses, and keep home values high (which, of course, also means that Guilford remains overwhelmingly white and well-to-do). “If they get on our board and go after our schools,” Rader said, referring to the Truth in Education candidates, “it’s going to be a really horrible situation. It’s an existential crisis. If they succeed, it will change everything.”

Philip Keith for BuzzFeed News

An American flag hangs in Guilford.

Guilford is not the kind of place anyone expected right-wing radicalism to take hold. This bucolic stretch along the boat-studded seashore is where parents phone-banked and canvassed at the high school to help eligible 17- and 18-year-olds vote for Barack Obama in 2008, who secured 61% of the town’s vote that year. As of 2014, Guilford was home to 3,516 registered Republicans and 5,294 registered Democrats — as well as 7,108 unaffiliated voters, a sizable group of question marks that the Protect Guilford Schools and Truth in Education slates are hoping to duke it out for.

“We’re typically more of a progressive town,” summarized Abby Moore, a 17-year-old senior at Guilford High School, “which is why everyone has been freaking out so much, including myself. It’s really frustrating, because [the Truth in Education slate] is talking about how difficult it is to be a white person in Guilford, which I just think is the most ridiculous thing that I have ever heard.” She added: “I have authority to say that, because I’m a white person who lives in Guilford.”

 “[The Truth in Education slate] is talking about how difficult it is to be a white person in Guilford, which I just think is the most ridiculous thing that I have ever heard. I have authority to say that, because I’m a white person who lives in Guilford.”

The town is overwhelmingly white and relatively affluent — the median household income is a little over $110,000. With Guilford’s location right off I-95, many residents commute to jobs throughout New Haven and surrounding counties. It’s a place that prides itself on its small businesses, many of which are housed in historic buildings dotting the Guilford Green, a charming and ubiquitous marker of towns settled in the 17th century throughout New England.

In fact, Danielle Scarpellino, the Republican ringleader for the Truth in Education folks, runs a popular dance and acrobatics studio in town. One of the Democratic candidates and a couple of the parents attempting to stop Scarpellino had once sent their children to her dance classes.

Scarpellino “at first seemed like a loud person with a small following,” according to Fikrig, the GHS alum. She was very vocal online about her opposition to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in Guilford, which anti-CRT ideologues consider a euphemism for critical race theory. “But as the national conversation shifted and CRT became a big Republican talking point, it really gained strength as a movement in Guilford,” Fikrig said. When the Truth in Education Republicans won both their caucus and their primary, she said, “I think a lot of the establishment GOP folks were shocked.”

Youtube/FoxNews

Scarpellino appearing on a Fox & Friends segment

A former NBA dancer, design assistant, and actor with a brief role on One Life to Live, Scarpellino spent 13 years as a stay-at-home mom before opening her dance studio. The mother of three has a fashionable curtain-bang haircut and conventional good looks that would make her right at home in her eventual appearance on Fox & Friends.

Scarpellino brought her concerns to the Board of Education in July. (The board records all of its meetings and publishes them in full on its YouTube page.) She was there to ask the board to table their vote to renew Superintendent Paul Freeman’s contract, set for the meeting that day. In a distressed denim jacket and brightly patterned pants, she stood at the podium, where she expressed her concerns about Freeman’s “partisan and deeply politicized efforts” to create a more socially just atmosphere in Guilford schools, including disseminating “incredibly racist and bigoted” materials, like How to Be an Antiracist, and refusing to “provide any opposing viewpoints.” She wanted the board to wait on its vote until after the November elections, when new board members might decide differently.

The board chair, Kathleen M.B. Balestracci, explained that they had to vote that night on the upcoming year, whether they wanted to or not. After Scarpellino tried to protest from the audience, the board moved on and voted on the district budget for the following year. Scarpellino expressed exasperation that the evidence she and fellow concerned parents had collected hadn’t swayed their votes.

Balestracci started to explain that the board members’ jobs were to try to meet the needs of every child in the district, but Scarpellino interrupted. “The record will show, when votes come up in November — votes will reflect the board’s reaction to parents like me.” She said that she knew many parents, the “silent majority,” who “don’t have the courage” she has to come forward with their views against the district’s DEI initiatives, “and I don’t blame them! They’re being called racist, their children are terrified, you’ve created an awful atmosphere in this town. Your unwavering support of Paul Freeman did nothing but make it worse. … This is how it’s working. Paul Freeman is telling you what to do! We’re not DUMB!”

Philip Keith for BuzzFeed News

Kathleen M.B. Balestracci, chair of the Board of Education

Scarpellino was followed at the podium by her fellow TIE candidate Bill Maisano, a burly, bearded, now-retired police officer who believes “teaching morality” is for parents and churches, not schools. “My kids are very young, and I don’t think they should be carrying the burdens of adults with them,” he said, in reference to any teachings of systemic racism. “As an adult, I can’t figure out these problems. How is my 11-year-old supposed to?”

Another speaker, an older gentleman, referenced the “lawless” separation of religion from public education, claiming that a secular religion has now replaced it. He pointed to Freeman’s purchases of How to Be an Antiracist, calling the book “racist by definition.” His daughter is now homeschooling his grandchild — a practice on the rise during the pandemic, as is parents switching their kids from public to private or religious schools — and “she is getting a way better education than what Guilford taught her, I’ll tell you that.”


The board’s next meeting, in August, took on a different tone. Dozens of masked parents showed up wearing “Guilford green” to show their support of the board. One by one, different community members took to the podium. “I applaud the BOE for committing to the work that needs to be done to teach our children about diversity,” said one man, who brought props from the local supermarket as evidence of the ways racist stereotypes still exist: Aunt Jemima syrup and Uncle Ben’s rice. Another applauded the board and Freeman, wondering of the TIE candidates: “Eventually, if you’re in the minority, you have to say you’re just not accepting what the majority wants and demanding your way. And I’d hope that would be the end of it.”

Scarpellino refused requests to put on a mask — “Are you asking for my health record? I have a health issue, and I would like to make a statement.” She was permitted to keep her mask off while at the podium, where she displayed a petition that she said had been circulating among some Guilford students: Over a screenshot of the Truth in Education website, someone had written, “This is what the racist white fuck trying to take over the Board of Education believes in.”

YouTube / Guilford BOE / Via youtube.com

Scarpellino speaks at a Guilford Board of Education meeting in August.

“I have been trying to say this since October 2020 but no one would listen,” Scarpellino continued, shouting now. “I’m asking you, please listen, for the sake of all children, our Black children, our white children, our...whatever! People are speaking, and there’s a silent majority I keep reminding you about, they’re in hiding. When they speak out, they get called a racist like I do, they get their business boycotted like I am—”

Someone in the audience let out a whoop.

“I’m sorry that I have to be so aggressive, I really am,” Scarpellino plowed on. “I know everyone here is doing what they think is right, but the difference is we are being called racist. It’s like being a murderer! It’s the worst thing you could be called.”

Someone else from the crowd, in a mild voice: “No, it’s not.”

“In my opinion, if you’re a racist, you’re the dregs of society,” Scarpellino said over audience jeers, prompting a couple “yups” and more laughter. Freeman admonished the crowd, telling everyone to be quiet and listen.

“Thank you, Dr. Freeman,” Scarpellino said. “I appreciate that, I know people see us as adversaries” — perhaps because she has called for his resignation — “but I’m not an adversary, I never have been.”

TIE candidate Bill Maisano also took the podium again. (Like Scarpellino, and the rest of the TIE candidates, he did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) “Hey, folks,” he said, noting that he was “vastly outnumbered” while looking out over the sea of green. “I have to bring up the caucus because I think that’s important. … I don’t know what everyone is so afraid of,” Maisano said. “The three were defeated resoundingly.

“I respectfully ask you to stick to school content,” Balestracci said.

Maisano tried another tack: “Mr. Freeman, I know you’ve used $6,000 to buy copies of How to Be an Antiracist.” A couple of people in the audience clapped. “I’ve read the book. Do you agree with Mr. Kendi that capitalism is racist?”

Freeman declined to engage him, leaving the confrontation to Balestracci, who told Maisano this forum was for comments — they wouldn’t be taking direct questions. “I’m trying to be polite,” he said, which prompted laughs from the crowd. “Try harder!” someone yelled.

“Listen,” Maisano said, flustered, “I get it. I’m a conservative and I’m vastly outnumbered. Here’s the thing: You can think whatever you want, teach your kids whatever you want. Let me teach my kids the way I see fit. Why can’t someone respect my right to teach my kids moral issues? I don’t send them to school to get morality. I take them to church for that.” He tried directly addressing Freeman again, saying, “I’m glad you got your contract, I really am, but I’m not expecting to see you for more than a couple years. I think you have higher aspirations. Guilford is kinda too small for you. You’ve got too much time, and you’re a good talker.”

At that point, Chair Balestracci had had enough. “I’m not going to sit here and tolerate you talking down to our administrators or anyone here on the board.”

“Well, I can learn from you how to do it,” Maisano said in a little singsong voice that drew disapproving clucks from the audience.

“Your time is up,” Freeman said. “It’s time to move on.”

Philip Keith for BuzzFeed News

A Civil War memorial on the Guilford Green in Guilford

“Critical race theory” as it was originally conceived isn’t even taught in the vast majority of the places where legislators have sought to ban it across the country. So where did all this backlash come from?

The anti-CRT push in more and more states isn’t only a national effort to politicize education — for some people, it’s also about winning midterm elections. Republican leadership, including senior aides to former president Donald Trump, have poured money and might into combatting CRT across the country in the hopes that stoking a new moral panic will restore them to power.

“This is the Tea Party to the 10th power,” Steve Bannon said in a June Politico story. “This isn’t Q, this is mainstream suburban moms — and a lot of these people aren’t Trump voters.” Jessica Anderson, executive director of the Heritage Foundation’s advocacy arm, agreed with Bannon, telling Politico that all this furor over critical race theory “could turn out to be one of the most important conservative grassroots fights since the Tea Party movement.” (In the lead-up to Guilford’s Board of Education election, some Guilford residents have received emails and mailers from the Heritage Foundation, promoting its e-book Critical Race Theory: Knowing It When You See It and Fighting It When You Can.)

Some Guilford residents have received emails and mailers from the Heritage Foundation, promoting its e-book Critical Race Theory: Knowing It When You See It and Fighting It When You Can.

That’s not to say that Scarpellino and her nationwide counterparts are all merely the thoughtless victims of an astroturf campaign. Conservative parents are often responding to real changes being made in their children’s curriculums, and have seemingly sincere (if often heinous) desires to protect their children from taking personal accountability for American racism, or even being made aware that it exists.

One moderate Guilford Republican, who asked that his name be withheld (“I gotta live in this town”), signed the petition to primary the anti-CRT candidates, “but the other side doth protest too much that [critical race theory] isn’t creeping into the curriculum,” he said. “The showdown in Guilford isn’t just because of disinformation. People are genuinely distressed at the idea their kids will be taught they are different or have different duties and obligations because of skin color.”

Whether Scarpellino succeeds remains to be seen, but on a macro level, Republicans' tactics have borne fruit. Roughly half the states in the country have either banned or considered banning the teaching of racial and gender justice. Fox News mentioned “critical race theory” nearly 2,000 times in the span of three and a half months this summer, according to an analysis from Media Matters. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice condemned the teaching of CRT in schools on a recent appearance on The View, saying, "I would like Black kids to be completely empowered, to know that they are beautiful in their Blackness, but in order to do that I don’t have to make white kids feel bad for being white.” And in the upcoming, hotly contested race for Virginia governor, CRT has taken center stage, with Republican contender Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive, pledging to “ban” CRT from “day 1” on the job.

Many Guilford townspeople are concerned about groups like the Heritage Foundation interfering with their community and the outsize focus on Guilford from people who don’t live or vote there. Indeed, campaign finance disclosure statements show that 43.6% of donations to the Republican slate from July through October came from out of town.

From emotional outbursts at school board meetings to clashes on social media, the upcoming election has inspired vicious fights between longtime neighbors and friends. This isn’t unique to Guilford; significant rifts have formed in other towns undergoing similar identity crises across the country, to the extent that Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the FBI to investigate complaints of parents threatening school board members. (After intense GOP backlash to a perceived “war on parents” and their rights to free speech, the National School Boards Association apologized for Garland’s letter, and Republicans like Sen. Josh Hawley have since called for Garland’s resignation.)

Ryan Girdusky, a Republican consultant and conservative media commentator, recently spoke to CNN about the PAC he started to fund school board takeovers; the PAC has earmarked $125,000 for different local elections around the country. When a reporter told him that many board members have been feeling threatened, he replied, “Good.”

Philip Keith for BuzzFeed News

Paul Freeman, the superintendent of the Guilford school district

Paul Freeman has the neat white hair and strong jaw of someone who’d play the president on television. His office is in one of the historic houses on the Guilford Green, a beautiful old building with many nooks and crannies, the floors a little slanted underfoot. He’s been the superintendent of Guilford schools for 10 years, a long run for an administration official in Connecticut.

Since anti-CRT backlash started booming in Guilford, including calls for his resignation, Freeman has maintained the same even-handed, no-nonsense, plainspoken insistence that instructors “do not teach critical race theory in Guilford public schools,” pointing to the Equity and Social Justice page on the district’s website where he’s addressed those allegations more specifically. He believes, he told me, that “the phrase is exaggerated and used as a straw man attack any time a school system is working on issues of race equity, of honestly and openly addressing historic and systemic racism in our schools.”

“It has been suggested that Guilford shouldn’t be talking about race and equity because we’re a predominantly white town.”

Freeman is excited to have Rydell Harrison of the Connecticut Center for School Change as the new part-time family equity liaison officer in Guilford, despite protests from some conservatives in town that Harrison’s position is further evidence of CRT indoctrination in town. Harrison was previously the short-lived superintendent of another small majority-white district in Connecticut, covering Easton, Redding, and Region 9, which underwent a very similar racial reckoning as Guilford’s following George Floyd’s murder: Hundreds of students and recent alumni wrote to the school board about instances of racism and discrimination in their schools. But according to an NBC News story from earlier this year, “some local residents started to complain that the diversity efforts were Harrison’s ‘agenda,’ rather than something students and alumni requested. They labeled Harrison, the district’s first Black superintendent, an ‘activist’ pushing to indoctrinate students with critical race theory.” Uncertain he could lead the district in the face of increasing opposition, Harrison, who didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story, announced he would resign in June, less than a year after taking the job.

Now that he has a part-time position in Guilford, Freeman is hopeful that Harrison will be someone that families can go to when they feel their child isn’t being supported in school because of how the student identifies.

“We are a school,” he added. “We should not be afraid of ideas. Students should feel safe to express opinions on any range of things. And teachers and school leaders need to be careful about not sharing our individual personal beliefs, as these conversations become so emotional and so charged and so polarized, but we also have to leave room for people to be human.”

Freeman noted that “it has been suggested that Guilford shouldn’t be talking about race and equity because we’re a predominantly white town,” which he rejects, pointing to all the alumni who’ve told the board they felt out of their depth when moving to more diverse metropolitan centers. “This is about all of our students continuing to grow in this direction, not about a minority of our students only. Justice for some is justice for all — we know when rights of minorities are acknowledged and protected it improves the environment for everybody. It’s not a zero-sum game.”

He and the school board have prioritized the promotion of “culturally responsive and sustaining” teaching practices, looking at school materials to make sure that “multiple experiences and races are presented and recognized,” he said. For Freeman, the best way to counter misinformation from anti-CRT conservatives is “trying to focus on daily work in the district,” which includes keeping kids healthy and safe throughout the pandemic, while at the same time, refusing to “use the pandemic as an excuse to not have these difficult conversations about race and racism.” He acknowledges that a straightforward approach can feel awkward and challenging when Guilford is currently experiencing something of a civil war, but he keeps telling supporters: “Focus on what we are doing in Guilford. Try to not spend time on what we’re NOT doing in Guilford, which is CRT.”

But Freeman’s opponents remain convinced that CRT is exactly what’s going on in Guilford.

Philip Keith for BuzzFeed News.

Lawn signs posted for the school board election show support for the Democrats.

When Kara Fikrig posted in one of Guilford’s Facebook groups about the results of the Republican BOE primary — “this was a shocking development, and it still wasn’t a widespread conversation among my generation,” Fikrig said — Scarpellino reposted a screenshot of it as an example of “liberal indoctrination.” Scarpellino’s supporters learned that Fikrig had gone to Yale and Cornell, and used her degrees as evidence of her “elitism.” Someone said disparaging things about Fikrig’s parents, which disturbed her, and she then realized the disparager was the mother of someone she’d played soccer with. “We used to carpool together.”

To browse the private Facebook groups dedicated to various facets of Guilford life is to be inundated with disturbing rhetoric laced among the more anodyne posts about babysitters and upcoming events. One commenter recently lamented that radical liberals are “invading” their wonderful community, while another suggested that liberal Marxists promoting CRT in schools “seek to destroy the United States through class warfare.”

“This town is oozing with liberal wannabe elite pus,” another commenter wrote. “If I didn’t have roots here, I’d move somewhere that was actually a little more diverse. I just love how all these white liberals claim to want diversity training for students here, but I doubt they’ve even gotten out of town to experience anything different than their fancy coffee bars or $150 a month crossfit gyms.”

“They’re wrong that we’d all be better off with white nationalism, though. That’s an easy pass for me.”

Breeze, one of the Guilford High School alums who’s active on the Guilford pages and has been organizing with other alumni to defeat the TIE slate, acknowledges that the Republicans do have a point. “Fundamentally, I think the Truth in Education slate is correct about a lot of things,” she said, noting that buying Kendi’s book for teachers was a misfire; so many of the dubiously intentioned anti-racist reading lists that crop up anytime another Black person is killed by police are just ways for white people to try to “homework” their way out of their own culpability. “People who move to Guilford to have a family move there for ‘good schools,’ and they buy into a mentality that results in decades of informal segregation,” Breeze continued. Guilford residents approved dedicating a parcel of land in a desirable part of town to affordable housing last year, but the building’s completion remains far from a sure thing if the complaints of NIMBYs (at least some of whom are Democrats) on Guilford’s Facebook pages are any indication. “It is hypocritical for those people to then claim that they are invested in the diversity of Guilford schools while paying a premium for suburban whiteness.”

“They’re wrong that we’d all be better off with white nationalism, though,” Breeze added. “That’s an easy pass for me.”

Much of the debates in Guilford over CRT have played out over Facebook threads and in Zoom forum chats. Perhaps the most widely shared (and condemned) piece of online content from the campaign season came from Chris Moore, who previously served on the Board of Education for eight years. He recently moved to the neighboring town of Madison following a divorce, but two of his four children, including teenage Abby (quoted earlier in this story), are still attending Guilford High School.

One prominent fixture of the Guilford community, Mary Beeman, who’s now the TIE candidates’ campaign manager, had served with Moore on the board years ago. (In response to my requests for comment on the story, Beeman replied, “No thank you.”) Everybody knows Mary Beeman, a community fixture who’s done costuming for school plays and whose paintings you might come across throughout town. One resident referred to her as “Guilford’s Phyllis Schlafly.”

Moore gets who Beeman is: “She’s pretty far right, pretty religious,” he said in an interview. But he was still appalled to see a screenshot of a comment made in a Zoom forum hosted by the University of Connecticut about critical race theory, in which Beeman wrote: “Helping kids of color to feel they belong has a negative effect on white, Christian or conservative kids.” In a text message Moore showed me, he asked Beeman if she’d really said such a thing, and she responded to him that it was “a crafty selection by one of your despicable friends out of a larger conversation. You folks are finding new lows in campaign methods. Disgusting behavior. And if this text finds its way to public discourse it will prove I’m right.”

Beeman’s comments did, of course, make their way to the public; the screenshot was splashed across social media and got picked up by local news. Following public outcry, Beeman issued a statement on the campaign’s Facebook page, which reads in part: “In the course of an online chat exchange during a Zoom presentation, I made a clumsy comment which I quickly corrected. … I am truly sorry to have typed a sentence that takes attention from our five outstanding candidates.”

“She hasn’t stepped down, and she really hasn’t apologized,” Moore said. “The candidates haven’t said anything to distance themselves [from Beeman’s comments], either, and I think that’s important.”

When Jennifer Scoggin, a 43-year-old who has worked in education for decades, saw all of this unfolding, she decided she wanted to take her advocacy work in Guilford’s Anti-Bias, Anti-Racist PTO out of the schools and into the public more broadly. That’s how Guilford Voices for Unity and Equity, or Guilford VUE, was born. Together with other founding members including Jessica Herrington, Lisa Kelly, Meg Teape, and Alexa Miller, Scoggin said they “went off to the races,” and after the Republican primary, they “had 500 members within minutes.” While the group “has broader goals for the future” — “this is a great start,” Scoggin said, referring to the district’s DEI initiatives, “but frankly there’s much more to do” — they’re currently laser-focused on the upcoming elections.

Guilford VUE isn’t a campaign, “but for us, we try to be for things, instead of simply against everything and everyone,” Scoggin said. The group has been canvassing in favor of the Protect Guilford Schools fusion slate, encouraging members to get lawn signs asking the community to “Vote Row A and C,” and writing letters to residents about misinformation spread by the opposition.

Philip Keith for BuzzFeed News

Jennifer Scoggin, a mother in Guilford who is organizing other parents to defeat the Republicans running for the school board who are against critical race theory

Scoggin and Fikrig, the GHS alum, are both concerned — as are most of the Democrats I spoke with — about a very confusing ballot, and voters navigating how and whether to vote absentee. This is a high-stakes election, which means the nitty-gritty of local bureaucracy when it comes to actually tallying the votes is under intense scrutiny. Democrats’ attempts to make voters aware they can vote remotely due to COVID has already resulted in claims of Democratic voter fraud.

Through all the hypercharged discourse, Scoggin has taken on a bigger picture approach: “If the other side is posting about some nonsense, we respond with the Connecticut State Department of Education’s statement on equity and their endorsement of responsible and sustainable pedagogy. There are changes being made at the state level that of course Dr. Freeman endorses, and the state is moving on with or without you.”

For Scoggin, two things can be true: “You can want to push your public schools to be better and still support the work they do. You can say, ‘Look, we’ve got some issues around classism, ableism, racism, but this is still a great place that wants to do the work.’”


When Abby Moore was in her first year of high school, one of her classmates reportedly showed up to a football game against Hartford — a much more racially diverse area than Guilford — in blackface. “That was really upsetting for me and a lot of people,” she said. But what was just as frustrating, she said, was that afterward, they “didn’t talk about it” in school. She’d made active efforts “to look into certain issues about race and discrimination, so I could understand why it was so hurtful and offensive,” whereas the student who’d allegedly worn blackface must have done so out of ignorance, Moore mused, if not also a lack of empathy.

When Moore was growing up, dressing in colonial garb to visit local historic houses on field trips, she “never really learned about how even in these houses up North, they still had slaves.” She was glad when, in middle school, she was able to participate in a project called the Witness Stones, which placed markers around town where people had been enslaved, “to give credit to them and their history.” (She doesn’t remember any pushback at the time from parents concerned their kids would feel bad about reminders of historical racism.) This is what Moore and her friends want more, not less of: a truthful history, even — especially — if it’s painful. As she wrote in a recent letter to the editor published by the Connecticut Examiner, “I, and most of my peers, don’t want to be lied to. We want to learn history that is not white-washed. We want to learn in an environment where our BIPOC and LGBTQ+ classmates feel heard and welcome. The people behind the ‘Truth in Education’ campaign want to keep us in the dark about our country’s ugly past. Most students know that it is essential to learn painful history so that we never allow it to repeat.”

“This is going to be a real referendum on our community.”

In the week leading up to Election Day, the Protect Guilford Schools brigade was out in full force: door-knocking, chatting with families during “Trunk or Treat” on the Guilford Green, and worrying that all their efforts might not have been enough.

“This is going to be a real referendum on our community,” said Rader, who noted that her campaigning efforts are completely separate from her daily responsibilities with the Board of Education. “I’m still attending all meetings, still working hard for our community. Nothing stops the work we do.” Some of the TIE candidates have been “disruptive” at public forums, “but it’s not hindered us.”

“We’re less sexy,” Scoggin joked about her coalition of concerned parents. “We’re not on Breitbart.” Even still, “I do know in my heart there are more of us in town who are behind the work than against it,” she said. “We just need people to show up and vote.”

The positive thing that’s come out of all of this was “that it has forced people to think about what their values are,” said Best, one of the Democratic board members.

“Parents are getting together and organizing and really pushing to continue this work, and pushing back against some of the more negative messages and the attempt to ban material and curriculums,” she said. “It’s actually galvanized many parents that maybe wouldn’t be involved with these issues otherwise. So no matter what happens — I don’t have a crystal ball — you can’t take that away.” ●

UPDATE

On election day on Nov. 2, the Fusion slate of Democrats and Independents running for the Guilford Board of Education won big, beating out Scarpellino and the other Truth in Education candidates by a 2:1 margin. Before the polls closed, Guilford reported the highest rate of voter turnout in the state — over 50% — according to the New Haven Register. The coalition claimed victory shortly before 9PM. While several closely watched Board of Education races across the country saw anti-CRT candidates defeated, there were places where Republicans hoping to dial back diversity and equity programs were triumphant, as in the high profile race in South Lake, Texas. “I hope that our town can serve as a model for how to overcome that hate,” said Kara Fitzrig, one of the Guilford High School alums who’d organized for the Fusion slate.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.