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In wealthy Loudoun County, Virginia, parents face threats in battle over equity in schools

“This has made people afraid to speak up,” one mother said. “They’re afraid that what happens to us is going to happen to them."
Illustration of a group of parents talking through the frame of binoculars. One parent is holding a phone.
The conflict over schools in this wealthy, rapidly diversifying community in the outer suburbs of Washington quickly became intertwined with political campaigns.Anuj Shrestha / for NBC News

On March 12, members of the private Facebook group “Anti-Racist Parents of Loudoun County” began to compile names.

The group’s members in Loudoun County, Virginia — one of the last school districts in the United States to desegregate, where white students now make up less than half of total enrollment — were concerned about growing opposition to diversity and equity programs in the local public schools. They believed other parents were spreading false claims about these initiatives, and so a handful of members started a list of these opponents as a way of tracking the claims and countering them. One member of the anti-racist group suggested infiltrating or hacking the websites of groups opposed to diversity programs.

Screenshots leaked almost immediately. Parents who had been named as opponents of school diversity initiatives called the sheriff’s office to complain. Conservative media outlets picked up the story, framing it as a group of liberal parents dubbed the “chardonnay antifa” creating a “hit list” of parents who disagreed with them.

Several members of the anti-racist Facebook group said they never intended to harass anyone, and considered the name sharing in the private group to be more in line with oppositional research than an attempt at intimidation. But whether intentional or not, the decision to compile names was perceived as a threat. Parents who had been named in the group said they didn’t know what the group was planning, and they feared for their safety.

“I don’t understand why we can't have a difference of opinion without an intense fight,” said Elizabeth Perrin, a white mother who was among those named in the Facebook group as a critic of school diversity plans. “We can find some middle ground.”

As the firestorm escalated, members of the anti-racist Facebook group — including parents, teachers and school board members — were bombarded with threats, some directed at their children. The school board added extra security at public meetings. Parents on both sides of the issue said they filed reports with the sheriff’s department and installed security cameras.

“This has made people afraid to speak up,” Emily Morford, a white mother who received threats over her participation in the anti-racist Facebook group, said. “They’re afraid that what happens to us is going to happen to them.”

The conflict in this rapidly diversifying community, the wealthiest county in the country, in the outer suburbs of Washington, quickly became intertwined with political campaigns. GOP candidates for the Virginia Legislature and statewide office declared their support for parents fighting racial equity initiatives. Republican activists are working with local parents, including a former Trump administration spokesman, to recall six Democratic Loudoun County school board members, at least some of whom joined the 600-member anti-racist Facebook group.

The battle lines in Loudoun County reflect similar clashes in communities across the country over the past year. Parents who were drawn to school board meetings to demand in-person learning this winter kept returning to oppose lessons on bias and privilege. Echoing former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, they complained that districts were indoctrinating their children.

But what’s happening in Loudoun County has gone further. Media-savvy parents make fiery speeches at school board meetings and then clip them into short videos that go viral on social media before making their way to cable news. Fox News covered the dissension in Loudoun County on at least 24 broadcasts in eight weeks.

“You're dealing with a situation at a local level where a school district and school curriculum is being politicized,” said Ian Prior, a white Loudoun County parent and former spokesman for Trump’s Justice Department who is leading the school board recall effort. “And there are several people — not just me — who absolutely know how to make sure that those things are at least exposed.”

The dispute in Loudoun County also shows how quickly these divisions can escalate and scare people away from getting involved in the debate. Parents who faced threats have scrubbed their social media profiles and taken down yard signs that read “Black Lives Matter.” Some said they are planning to sell their houses and move. Several members of the anti-racist Facebook group, including Black parents, declined to speak on the record for fear of receiving more harassment.

“Having my address shared is really frightening but I think it also speaks to the broader problem of how this is turning people on their neighbors,” said Jamie Neidig-Wheaton, a white mother and administrator of the anti-racist Facebook group. “This is about people's political aspirations and creating a wedge issue for midterms. What I want is to bring this back to addressing the real problem of racism in our schools.”

A changing county confronts racism, past and present

Loudoun County was once a Republican stronghold, but it has shifted to favor Democrats in recent elections — Trump lost the county by 24 percentage points last year — in part due to changing demographics. The population quadrupled in 30 years as developers gobbled up farmland, and Verizon offices and Amazon data centers moved in, quickly becoming some of the biggest employers alongside defense contractors and government agencies. Close to 1 in 4 Loudoun County residents are immigrants, many from India and El Salvador, and the proportion of white students in the district dropped from 58 percent to 43 percent over the last decade. A quarter of the students are of Asian descent, 18 percent are Hispanic and 7 percent are Black.

“Our students are living in an increasingly diverse world, even here on the microlevel — Loudoun County is changing,” said Scott Ziegler, the interim superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools. “They need to learn to live in a diverse global society. The other thing we know is we have missteps we need to account for and correct.”

Image: Scott Ziegler, the interim superintendent of Loudoun County schools since January.
Scott Ziegler, the interim superintendent of Loudoun County schools since January, said the district does not teach critical race theory.Loudoun County Public Schools

In 2019, the Loudoun County school district hired a consultant group, the Equity Collaborative, to conduct an audit of the racial climate in schools. Students of color told the Equity Collaborative in focus groups that white students, teachers and parents had used racial slurs and told them to go back to their country. They also raised concerns about common usage of the N-word and a lack of punishment for white students who hit Black children and Muslim children. The Equity Collaborative concluded in a report that administrators and staff members were unprepared to tackle these problems.

In recent interviews, several parents, who asked not to be named because of the harassment others have faced, echoed these issues. One mother of South Asian descent said her children broke down crying after they were called “ISIS” in middle school, in a reference to the Islamic State terror group. "It was jarring,” she said.

A Black mother recalled her children being told by their classmates that they were "too dark" to play with in elementary school. Another Black mother, whose children are of mixed race, said she was sometimes grateful that her children were lighter skinned. “It’s a very uncomfortable and hard position to be in,” she said. “You’re grateful for it because it’s probably going to create a little bit more safety, but at the same time it’s almost self-hatred.”

Following the audit, the local branch of the NAACP filed a complaint with the Virginia attorney general’s office in May 2019 alleging a racially hostile environment in Loudoun County schools. This prompted a state investigation. In November 2020, the attorney general’s office concluded that the district’s policies and practices had harmed Black and Latino students and outlined steps for the district to address the “discriminatory disparate impact identified and help ensure equal opportunity for each student.”

The district agreed to revise the admissions criteria for its competitive magnet school and gifted programs, change its approach to student discipline and annually review its protocol for responding to racial slurs and hate speech. The district also agreed to retain third-party consultants for assistance.

Michelle Thomas
Pastor Michelle Thomas, head of NAACP Loudoun, has pushed the school district to do more to combat racial harassment of children.Douglas Graham / AP file

The attorney general’s office noted that the school district had started taking a number of steps after the Equity Collaborative’s audit, such as revamping diversity training for staff. The county also issued a public apology for being one of the last school districts in the country to desegregate — refusing to do so until 1967, 13 years after the Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” in public schools unconstitutional — and changed the name of the mascot, the Raiders, to drop a Confederate reference.

These changes, and the district’s new diversity and equity initiatives — including banning students from wearing the Confederate battle flag on clothing, creating a student equity ambassador program and establishing a new protocol for dealing with racial slurs — drew little attention before 2021.

“No one had complained,” said Pastor Michelle Thomas, head of the local NAACP branch, “until about the time when the ex-president, Donald Trump, started to make this a national issue.’”

"It is a lifetime issue for us. It is a step on the political ladder for them."

Loudoun NAACP President Pastor Michelle Thomas

Last fall, Trump ordered federal agencies to eliminate any diversity training that incorporated “critical race theory.” The term, developed by scholars decades ago as an academic framework to examine how systemic racism perpetuates societal ills, has become a conservative buzzword in recent months. Many Republican lawmakers followed Trump’s lead by advancing legislation to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” around race and The New York Times’ “1619 Project.”

This sentiment popped up in Loudoun County as well, where some parents objected to the district’s equity efforts and sought to block critical race theory from the classroom.

“We should be bringing up a generation that isn’t taught to hate or to feel like they were the oppressor or the oppressed,” said Perrin, who joined an effort to recall school board members. “We don’t need victims — we need strong children.”

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But problems in Loudoun County go beyond school hallways. For years, Ku Klux Klan propaganda has been left at people’s homes. In 2019, residents found swastikas spray-painted around the county. In March, youth hockey players said opponents from Loudoun County berated them with racial slurs during a game. In May, a Black New York Red Bulls soccer player accused fans at a Loudoun County stadium of starting racist chants against his team.

“What you see is a group of people stirring the pot and often in a way that they are totally uneducated about,” said Thomas, who is Black. “They couldn’t care less about our students. It is a lifetime issue for us. It is a step on the political ladder for them.”

'I began to panic'

In early March, school board member Beth Barts, a white mother, posted in the anti-racist Facebook group that she was concerned a “movement” of people opposed to critical race theory was gaining momentum.

"I began to panic, to be honest, because I saw all of a sudden our equity work was being misinterpreted as critical race theory, which is college-level curriculum," she said in a recent interview. She felt more people should be calling out falsehoods, and she posted screenshots from Parents Against Critical Theory, a website run by Loudoun County parent Scott Mineo.

Mineo is a white parent who claimed credit for getting the national media to report in February that the district had canceled Dr. Seuss (the district said it didn’t cancel the author, it just wasn’t emphasizing his work for Read Across America Day). He has spent months arguing that the district used critical race theory. He also expressed skepticism of the audit and the attorney general’s report on racial harassment in the schools, and considered statements from the school district calling for the community to help dismantle white supremacy counterproductive.

“I’ll be the first on board to help eradicate white supremacy,” he said, “but what am I looking for? Am I looking for me? Are we looking for people that look like me? Are there secret handshakes that I need to be watching out for? It's a blanket, empty, meaningless statement meant to inject a level of hatred, fear and expansion of the narrative of racism in our county.”

In the anti-racist Facebook group, screenshots obtained by NBC News show that members floated various strategies — create a petition, email the school board en masse, hold demonstrations supporting district diversity efforts — but many people said they weren’t sure what would be most effective. Eventually, one member suggested compiling a list of people who were part of the “anti-CRT movement.” The person also said it would be “useful to compile a list of allies.”

Another person called for “hackers who can either shut down their websites or redirect them.” Multiple people volunteered to call out misinformation, and shared names of people they considered critics of equity initiatives, but no one appeared to offer help with hacking; a few people said they wouldn't do that.

Screenshots quickly leaked to David Gordon, who founded a political action committee called the Virginia Project two years ago to help Republicans win elections. He posted two of the images on the Virginia Project’s Twitter account on March 12. Within days, national news outlets wrote about the fight, naming many of the people who were part of the anti-racist Facebook group.

“These people are basically going around and deciding anybody who doesn't agree with them is an enemy,” Gordon said. (For years, Gordon has commented on Virginia politics under the pseudonym Alexis Rose Bank; he has also called for various anti-Trump political figures and protesters to be killed — remarks he told NBC News were the type of internet post “where you exaggerate a bit to get your point across.”)

Patti Hidalgo Menders said she was livid, and alarmed, when she learned that she and her husband had been named in the anti-racist group.

“We put new cameras around our house,” said Menders, president of the Loudoun County Republican Women’s Club, whose parents fled Cuba. “My husband has more guns and more ammunition — we don’t know what’s going to tick someone off to want to come after us.”

IMAGE: Ian Prior speaks at a Loudoun County school board meeting
Ian Prior speaks at a Loudoun County school board meeting April 27.Loudoun County Public Schools

The Loudoun County sheriff’s department confirmed it received complaints “surrounding messages posted by a social media group, as well as messages sent in response” and to school board members. The department declined to release further information, citing ongoing investigations.

The newly mobilized opponents of diversity lessons also spoke at school board meetings, saying they held Barts responsible for the anti-racist group’s “illegal activities” and demanding the district stop teaching critical race theory.

Barts said in an interview that while one member of the Facebook group "unfortunately took it a step too far” in calling for hacking, she is not an administrator of the group and did not encourage anyone to target parents who disagreed with them.

"Never ever did I advocate for anything illegal or aggressive,” she said.

The school district didn’t directly address the Facebook group, but issued statements disputing that it taught critical race theory. Parents accused the district of playing a semantics game and said that its use of terms like “systemic racism,” “microaggressions” and “culturally responsive teaching” amounted to the same thing.

A week after the screenshots leaked, Prior, the local father who has extensive experience working in Republican politics, started a political action committee focused on recalling Barts and five other school board members. He said he was frustrated that the school board had refused to respond to questions about the curriculum or hold a town hall. “We can do this all day, every day,” he vowed at a school board meeting in April.

The school board chair, Brenda Sheridan, who is among those facing a possible recall, did not respond to a request for comment.

An onslaught of threats

As the conflict continued, so did the national media coverage — and with it came more harassment of the parents who supported diversity initiatives.

Barts said she received 30 phone calls in one afternoon from people from around the country telling her she was a racist and indoctrinating kids. Both she and her husband received vitriolic Facebook messages, she said, and she asked police to escort her to her car after school board meetings.

“We know which doors you leave unlocked,” one email warned. She was suddenly very appreciative that her dog barks viciously any time someone comes near their house.

“There were days that it became very difficult to hear the constant nastiness in all the emails calling me ‘fatso’ and ‘ugly’ and ‘I hope you end up destitute and broke,’” Barts said.

Other members of the anti-racist group who were named in articles also received messages calling them racial slurs, and telling them, “Go home, you have no place in the USA,” according to screenshots reviewed by NBC News. Morford, who had flagged Prior and a former congressional candidate as critics of equity initiatives in the anti-racist group, was labeled a “harasser” on a website that listed her email and employer, prompting her to install security cameras.

Andrea Weiskopf, a white middle school teacher, received a torrent of harassing social media messages and emails after conservative news outlets noted her involvement in the Facebook group and defense of diversity efforts before the school board. According to screenshots, one email sent to her at work warned that the person could find where she lived. She said she forwarded several messages to the police.

"I get that white people don’t want their kids going to school and being told their parents are racist, but it’s not happening — it’s made up."

Jamie Neidig-Wheaton

Several members of the anti-racist Facebook group said they were unnerved when the Virginia Project posted a letter on Twitter to Neidig-Wheaton, the group’s only white administrator, that included her home address. Gordon said it was an “inadvertent oversight” that he corrected by removing the post, but it was “perfectly legal.”

Neidig-Wheaton said she no longer feels safe in Loudoun County because of the threats she’s received, and she plans to move across the country.

“The national attention that has been shined on this is just ridiculous,” she said. “I get that white people don’t want their kids going to school and being told their parents are racist, but it’s not happening — it’s made up.”

On Wednesday, the Virginia Project sued Neidig-Wheaton for defamation after she said on a podcast that the right-wing group was responsible for "spurring other people to threaten us." The Virginia Project said it didn't encourage people to threaten her or others. Neidig-Wheaton referred questions about the suit to her attorney, who did not immediately comment.

'We’re not going to back down'

In the weeks since Loudoun County’s diversity programs came under fire, Ziegler, who became interim superintendent in January, said he’s been in multiple meetings about racial discrimination and equity with high school students. He said the students are not focused on the national scrutiny and the debate over critical race theory.

“They want us to do something about the bullying that occurs in school and out of school,” Ziegler said. “They just want us to make the day better for them and their friends.”

Menders said parents opposed to the school district’s diversity initiatives have formed a strategy group, and have been using the state’s open records law to collect documentation from the district. She’s also advised activist parents and teachers in Arizona, California and New York who are seeking help with similar battles.

"We’re not going to back down," she said.

Prior’s recall effort, which is still gathering signatures, has launched a commercial. Mineo said he’s turning his Parents Against Critical Theory website into a nonprofit, and will continue to “expose everybody that's involved, and expose exactly what's going on” in schools.

Thomas, the local NAACP chair, is disheartened to see how the debate has been politicized.

“I would just simply ask that those people who are using this — using equity as a tool to divide our country — I would ask they just stop,” she said. “On the other end of their divisiveness are children who are experiencing great pain, and who are left behind in terms of them realizing their educational goals.”