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A Falmouth parent was bullied and accused of being a racist after a Jan. 18 meeting organized by Falmouth school officials.
The purpose of the meeting was to assuage parents’ concerns over the district’s diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, but rather than bringing the community together, the meeting seems to have further divided parents on a host of controversial issues.
The chaos began near the end of the hours-long meeting when one attendee expressed concern that the school was teaching her children to believe that America is a racist country.
“I don’t believe we’re a racist country — I believe there are racists in this country,” said Falmouth resident Barbara Ward.
In response to that claim, several other speakers denounced Ward, with the final speaker of the night stating, “You. Are. Racist. … You just straight up fu**ing racist,” as many in the crowd cheered and hollered at Ward.
The meeting, which included nearly 100 parents, students, and school employees, sent shockwaves through the community, leaving many parents reeling and questioning whether they want to keep their kids in the school system.
Every parent interviewed for this story, with the exception of Ward, asked to remain anonymous because they feared retribution by school officials or community members against themselves or their children.
“The level of hatred that exists was astonishing,” said one parent. “It was like the Twilight Zone.”
“If adults are behaving this way without direction and guidance, the question is what’s happening day to day with our schools,” the parent said.
Several Falmouth parents who attended the meeting and were interviewed for this story said they were actively looking for new schooling options for their kids.
“I have started looking elsewhere,” said one parent. “I know many other parents who have started the process as well and others who have already left the district.”
Multiple parents said they have shied away from speaking publicly about school issues because they are worried teachers or other school employees will single out their children.
The role academic theories about gender identity should play in public schools has become a hot topic in almost every school in Maine, as has the influence of contemporary ideas about race and racism, sometimes described as Critical Race Theory (CRT).
As part of their effort to navigate that thorny debate, school officials organized the meeting intending to educate parents about the districts’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, particularly on gender identity and race.
But whatever progress might have been made that night went up in flames in the final 15 minutes.
That’s when Ward raised concerns about gender identity counseling in the schools and said she didn’t want Falmouth teachers telling her children that they live in a racist country.
After that, the meeting descended into vitriol, as the next three speakers all responded to Ward with escalating rhetoric. When Ward attempted to defend herself against attack on her character, Falmouth Superintendent Gretchen McNulty instead intervened, spoke briefly about herself, and then sent everyone home.
Also present at the meeting, according to one attendee, were Jennifer Kelly, the director of learning and affirmative action coordinator; Whitney Bruce, the Falmouth school board chair; Chelsea Hunnewell, the elementary school assistant principal; and Richard Gowers, the principal of the high school.
McNulty and other school officials have made no public statements about the meeting, but interviews with several attendees suggest the meeting has only inflamed tensions in the community, stoked animosity, and led some parents to be even more concerned about the competence of the schools’ leaders.
I don’t believe we’re a racist country — I believe there are racists in this country,” saID Ward
The recording provided to the Maine Wire captured the tense conclusion of the more than two-hour long community DEI meeting.
In the recording, Ward can be heard speaking first. She expresses concern over secretive gender counseling in schools and said she doesn’t think America is a racist country, but is instead a welcoming country that happens to have some racists in it.
“We have people dying to come to our country… We don’t have a reputation of being racist, we have a reputation of being welcoming. And we’ve elected a black president twice. And half of our country fought and died to end slavery. I don’t believe we’re a racist country — I believe there are racists in this country,” said Ward.
“So policy more than anything is what I’m concerned about, and who is responsible for the policy, and how can we be sure we understand what is happening in our schools,” she said.
The next person to speak after Ward defends lessons on gender identity theory, saying that it’s important for children to learn that they-them pronouns can be grammatically correct because it will make hate crimes less likely to occur.
“I don’t really want to get hate-crimed and … called slurs,” the speaker said. “If we don’t teach this stuff, this will be more likely to happen. And that’s why we’re trying to do this,” she said.
The crowd applauds uproariously when the speaker finishes.
After that, a Falmouth High School senior addresses the crowd.
In her remarks, the student claims Ward said “there’s no racism in this country.” She then criticizes that claim, suggesting Ward suffers from “colorblindness.”
“For you to say that there’s no racism in this country is you being color blindness,” she said. “I don’t know if you know what that means, but it’s, you know, basically, it sums up that you see that all colors are the same, you see that we all go through the same thing, but you don’t see me, and you don’t see the struggles that I go through, you don’t see the marches that we still are keeping to go through. And that’s very dangerous to think that way.”
“It almost sounds like you’re a little afraid of change, but we really need change,” she said. “So, yeah, I just want to say that what you’ve said is just completely false. There is racism in this country. I’m a person of color, I have two different races of parents, and my mom goes through so much racism.”
The student appeared to mishear or misinterpret what Ward had said. Yet none of the adults in the meeting, including the school officials moderating the discussion, sought to set the record straight, nor was Ward allowed to respond or clarify her position.
After a round of applause for the student, another Falmouth resident addresses the meeting. Although the beginning part of the woman’s speech is hard to understand from the recording, it’s clear that she is addressing Ward as well.
The woman, who identifies herself as the only black woman in the room, speaks movingly about her own experiences with racism, and she criticizes Ward and the other white people in the room.
A good example of racism, she said, is the white people in the room failing to confront Ward over her belief that America is not a racist country. According to her, Ward’s attitude is part of what has prevented racial or ethnic minorities from coming to Falmouth or participating in school meetings.
“The reason I’m probably the only dark skinned person in this room is because of what she just said — and I’m not coming down on you, so please, I don’t want your feelings hurt,” she said.
“What bothers me the most is that the majority of the people in this room are white, and none of you are saying anything to her. No one will ever say anything to her, whether it’s a teacher, whether it’s a friend, my husband can tell you about it, he lives through it,” she said. “This is why racism is still existing. This is why she is thinking the way she is. No one will stand up and say, ‘You are wrong, let me explain to you why in grave details.'”
The woman then describes the difficulties she’s experienced raising children of color in a predominantly white community, from increased harassment by racist cops to having to teach her children at an early age that they will be treated as adults even if they are 11 or 12 years old.
“I have sons who have to have a talk of just being black. I have sons who are biracial who still have to get the talk of being biracial. Do you have an ID on you? I know you’re only 13, but if a cop pulls us over they’re not going to see that you’re 13, they see you as an enemy,” she said.
“You can’t sell candy bars on the street in Falmouth because a neighbor will call the cops and say, ‘There’s a young black man that’s suspiciously walking across my yard.’ Your white son will never, ever have to go through that,” she told Ward.
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — the tip of the iceberg. You will never have to sit your child down and say, ‘Today is the day you stop being a child even though you’re only eleven. Let me explain to you what to do when we get pulled over.’ I’m almost 50 years old and I guarantee you I’ve been harassed by the cops way more than you have, than anyone in this room.”
“I’m sorry I’m pissed but I’m fed up,” she said.
At that point, tensions in the room began to boil over.
“No one is speaking up about it. No one is saying anything. A sea of white faces that say, oh, well, we’re not racist, we’re going to do something about it,” she said.
The woman asks whether other people in the room felt uncomfortable with what Ward said: “Does this make anyone else in the room feel uncomfortable besides the black person in the room?” she asks.
Several hitherto quiet members of the crowd can be heard eagerly murmuring “yes.”
“Well then say something!” the woman said. “Because the only people that can change racism is this America, that you guys claim is, you know, the land of the free.”
Ward can then be heard asking directly: “Are you calling me racist?”
To which the speaker and several other people in the audience cry out, “Yes! Yes! … Yes, we are!”
The woman with the microphone then confirms: “Yes, I am. You. Are. Racist,” she said.
“You’re not color blind,” she said. “You just straight up f****ng racist.”
Ward attempted to defend herself, but several people interjected, including the superintendent.
“She needs to defend herself actually,” one man said, to no avail.
Rather than let Ward respond to multiple public accusations that she is a racist, McNulty, on the verge of tears, began a bizarre display of self-flagellation, talking about herself and her own commitment to anti-racism.
“My name is Gretchen McNulty, I’m the superintendent of the school. And I commit to being anti-racist. I commit to being anti-biased. And I don’t really know what I’m doing. Ok? But I say that knowing I have more knowledge and expertise than half the leaders in this state.”
“My name is Gretchen McNulty, I’m the superintendent of the school. And I commit to being anti-racist. I commit to being anti-biased,” she said.
“And I don’t really know what I’m doing. Ok? But I say that knowing I have more knowledge and expertise than half the leaders in this state,” she said.
McNulty than acknowledged Ward, who she knows from their work together on the Falmouth High School principal hiring committee, but she closed out the forum without allowing her an opportunity to respond.
The recording serves as a microcosm of the fierce political and ideological fights playing out in schools across Maine.
On the one hand, progressive school officials are rapidly implementing left-wing practices and ideas which they believe will increase tolerance and inclusivity in the school. For them, and the parents who agree with them, DEI programs aren’t ideologically driven, but are instead the principles around which an ideal school is organized.
On the other hand are parents who question whether children should be taught about novel gender theories like pansexualism or demisexualism, or controversial racial ideas like “white privilege,” “white fragility,” and “white rage.”
The recording also shows the difficulties parents on both sides of the debate have navigating emotionally, politically, and racially charged issues that intersect with their children’s educations.
According to multiple parents, the Falmouth school district’s drive toward progressive DEI policies has accelerated since McNulty became the acting-superintendent and hired Jennifer Kelly as director of learning and coordinator of affirmative action.
Part of their DEI program included the publication of a 2022 “equity audit.”
In that report, several parents and students expressed concerns that those who do not identify politically as liberal or progressive are often discriminated against by district employees.
“The only discrimination I see is against conservative values,” one parent said in the report.
“My child has been ridiculed by teachers and members of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee for being a Republican. The high school administration is callous toward our concerns,” said another.
“There is a lot of bias on political and philosophical beliefs. I am conservative and constantly feel like I can’t share my opinions unless I am comfortable with the negative repercussions,” one student said in the equity report.
While some parents said McNulty was right to shut down the meeting when she did, as everyone was angry and emotions were running hot, others expressed disbelief that McNulty would claim she “doesn’t know what she’s doing” considering how much she’s been pushing DEI on the school system.
“She declared she doesn’t know what she is doing regarding DEI as the superintendent, yet the agenda seems to be coming out fast and furious,” said one parent.
In an interview this week, Ward said she’d never met the woman who called her a racist before, and she did not even know her name.
She said she approached the woman after the meeting in an attempt at reconciliation.
“My recollection is that she apologized for swearing,” said Ward. “I wanted to introduce myself to her and asked her name. I told her I could not understand what she must feel and that it must be awful.”
“I tried to explain why I believed our country and town was not racist,” she said. “Our one-on-one conversation was not heated.”
Superintendent McNulty and School Board Chair Bruce did not respond to inquiries about the diversity, equity, and inclusion meeting.
The Maine Wire’s attempts to identify and contact the woman who accused Ward of being a racist were unsuccessful.
You can listen to the full recording of the meeting that was given to the Maine Wire here: