How Upper Arlington became an unlikely battle site in the culture wars last month.
BY SAFIA MALHOTRA ’24 AND JAMES UNDERWOOD ’23. PHOTOS BY JAMES UNDERWOOD ’23.
On Jan. 17, a right-wing conservative group known as Accuracy in Media published a piece on its website titled “Ohio school administrators reveal tactics for tricking parents.” The piece, which would cause a heated debate in the Upper Arlington community, included hidden-camera footage of UA Schools Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director Matt Boaz speaking about diversity in the district’s curriculum.
In the video, Accuracy in Media personnel pose as prospective UA parents wanting to ensure their children’s education will discuss topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Well I kind of want to know that y’all are having some conversation around —” a female voice can be heard saying, with her putative husband continuing, “the tenets of it: diversity, equity, and inclusion, social justice.”
“Those conversations are happening, absolutely,” Boaz, who denied a request for an interview for this piece, replies.
The video includes numerous clips of Boaz discussing Critical Race Theory, an academic framework which explores how race intersects with social concepts.
“You can pass a bill that you can’t teach CRT in a classroom. But if you didn’t cover programming, or you didn’t cover extracurricular activities or something like that, that message might still get out,” Boaz says in the video. “Oops. There will be a way.”
The clips of Boaz are interspersed with narration and commentary from the president of Accuracy in Media, Adam Guillete.
“These radicals are being paid by your tax dollars to deceive you,” Guillete narrates, following Boaz’s statements about Critical Race Theory. “These public school administrators are devoted to promoting social justice in classrooms.”
In an interview with Arlingtonian, Guillete harshly criticized Boaz’s words.
“Out of all of the districts I’ve investigated in America, the things we heard from Mr. Boaz were probably the most outrageous and shocking,” he said.
The day after the release of the video, interim UA Schools Superintendent Kathy Jenney issued a statement the day following the publication of the video, emphasizing that CRT was not in the curriculum and that the district would “continue to examine the circumstances surrounding the video and the statements made therein.” Through a district spokeswoman, Jenney declined to be interviewed for this piece.
The video immediately drew strong reactions in the Upper Arlington community. Posts about the incident soon racked up dozens and then hundreds of comments on the Upper Arlington Discussion Forum Facebook page. Tensions reached a boiling point at the first public Board of Education meeting since the incident, which was held Feb. 7, weeks after the video was initially published. The meeting took place at the Upper Arlington Municipal Center and was jam-packed with community members. About half of those in attendance had to watch from a TV screen in the foyer outside the actual meeting chamber, which was at capacity.
^ Scenes from a jam-packed Board of Education meeting at which many community members discussed the video.
At that meeting, which lasted some three and a half hours, numerous community members spoke before the board on the video, and more broadly on topics of diversity, equity and inclusion within the district.
On both Facebook and at the Board of Education meeting, community members voiced a variety of opinions. Some criticized Boaz’s words; many others defended him. Many supporters of Boaz showed up in red shirts to signify their support. One aspect of the incident they criticized was the hidden-camera nature of the recording, which was made under false pretenses.
Guillete declined to confirm how exactly he obtained a meeting with Boaz, or to speak to the use of a hidden camera.
“Our team of investigative journalists use a variety of different tactics to make contact with people at all times. And I don’t recall the tactics that were used on that particular day,” Guillete said. “This is an ongoing investigation that includes many, many different states. So we definitely don’t want to give away some of the tactics if it’s going to interfere with our ability to effectively operate in other states.”
Guillete did say, however, that Accuracy in Media did not seek to actively single out Upper Arlington.
“We didn’t choose Upper Arlington per se,” he said. “We’ve investigated countless districts. We never have any specific targets in mind.”
Another topic of criticism was Accuracy in Media’s involvement in a local community as a national group. Over the years, the group has drawn controversy across the country; most recently, it had a “Hitler truck” drive through Berkeley. The truck had a large digital display on its side featuring a photograph of Adolf Hitler and the text “All in favor of banning Jews, raise your right hand.” The stated purpose of this was to criticize Berkeley Law students groups that had banned pro-Zionist speakers.
The group made use of vans in the promotion of the Boaz video, as well. For several days, it had a van parked across the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus that played the video.
Reaction to the video was not limited to Upper Arlington, however. News outlets across the state and country picked up the story. Cathy Pultz, president of the Upper Arlington Education Coalition and a board member of Protect Ohio Children, appeared on Fox and Friends to criticize Boaz. On that program, Pultz, who could not be reached for comment, described being “shocked” at the video.
Due to the large community response, an email was sent to parents on Jan. 25 by School Board President Lori Trent, informing them that Boaz requested leave time that “does not require Board action.” Despite the tensions flared by the video, Trent emphasized civility in her statement.
“This video has prompted a variety of strong reactions from people in our community and across the country,” Trent, who through a district representative declined to be interviewed, wrote in her email. “Let’s work together hand-in-hand with mutual respect and civility in order to make our district and community even stronger.”