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Faith & Justice - Attack on Innocence

The magazine of Alliance Defending Freedom

Matt and Marie Mierzejewski

Matt and Marie Mierzejewski

A School Board’s Determination To Indoctrinate Children Has Parents Taking A Stand

A few years ago, on an easygoing morning in Albemarle County, Virginia, Marie Mierzejewski was in her car, running errands.

Squirming and chatting in the back seat were two little boys — one, her own white son, the other, a young black friend of his — both excited to be out and on the go.

On impulse, Marie swung by Starbucks for a cup of coffee. She bought the boys cake pops and, back in the car, heard the happy smacking of satisfied sweet tooths. Then, this giggling comment:

“Isn’t this neat?” the friend said. He had chosen a chocolate pop, while Marie’s boy was nibbling vanilla. “Mine matches my face, and yours matches your face.” Marie listened to their laughter and smiled.

“It was so innocent,” she remembers. “Just acknowledging the difference — celebrating it, even. Race doesn’t have to be a divider between kids.”

But today in Albemarle County, race is being used to do exactly that: divide children, divide their parents, divide entire communities. The school board of Albemarle is seeing to that.

It has lessons to teach that have nothing to do with reading, writing, or arithmetic — and, sadly, everything to do with ending the innocence of children.

Marie and her husband, Matt, have four children — two girls, two boys — who started their education in the same elementary and middle schools Matt attended, growing up. A native of Crozet (a Charlottesville suburb), Matt met Marie, a Connecticut girl, when they were both teens. He first proposed to her — only half in jest — when they were middle and high schoolers together.

A few years passed before she took him and his second proposal more seriously.

“He loved our Lord so much,” she says. “Number One important to me was our faith and somebody who would bring me closer to that intimacy with God.” Active in their local Catholic church and community, Matt works in paid search engine advertising, while Marie is a social worker in a local assisted living and memory care unit.

Charlottesville, Virginia

Charlottesville, Virginia

Like so many of their neighbors, the family delights in the Blue Ridge Mountain scenery of the Albemarle area. Crozet is the kind of sociable community where you run a comb through your hair on the way out the door, because — grocery, park, or dentist office — you’re going to meet someone you know.

“You recognize people, you sort of know about them,” Matt says. “People are generally pleasant, and the pace of life is good, too.” Still, the Mierzejewskis’ Christian friends expressed surprise that they sent their children to public school in the first place.

“We felt like a little bit of an anomaly,” Marie admits, “because our faith is so central to us. But we really felt that’s where the Lord had us and that’s where He wanted us.” She and Matt made a special effort to reinforce their kids’ identities as believers. Marie was active in the school and would encourage them to pray over meals in the school cafeteria, or celebrate Christian holiday traditions when appropriate in their classroom settings.

“The key is that faith doesn’t feel … removed,” Matt says. “It’s part of life, not a once-a-week thing. We try to make it as much of our life as possible.”

“We try to make [faith] as much of our life as possible.”

—Matt Mierzejewski

Not far away from the Mierzejewskis, and active in the same Catholic parish, Carlos and Tatiana Ibañez were trying to instill those same values in their own three children. Raising solid, successful Catholic youngsters was part of the plan from the time the two met, dated, and married during dental school. Raising them in Albemarle County was not.

Carlos and Tatiana Ibañezm

Carlos and Tatiana Ibañez

The Ibañezes are from Panama and came of age during the years of Manuel Noriega’s brutal dictatorship there. The experience did much to shape their understanding of political freedom.

“[The regime’s] version of ‘getting canceled’ was much more severe than it is here,” Carlos remembers. “You did not speak against the establishment.”

“You knew what to say, and what not to say,” says Tatiana. “When you were on the phone, you better not say anything that somebody else didn’t want to hear.” A cousin of Carlos challenged the Noriega regime, then vanished. His body was eventually found … but not his head.

That brutal murder, some say, helped trigger a 1989 U.S. invasion that suppressed the violent Noriega regime. Years later, Carlos and Tatiana legally immigrated to the U.S. to pursue their education. Both studied dentistry in Panama and then at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Carlos eventually became an oral and maxillofacial surgeon and joined the staff of the University of Connecticut Health Center.

“The idea was to get this training and go back home,” he says. As he and Tatiana began raising a family, though, “we realized that this was probably a better place for our children to go to school, get their education, and have more doors open for them.” The Ibañezes became U.S. citizens and chose to build their dental practice and make their home in Albemarle County.

Virginia Mountains

A cloudy autumn day in the rolling hills of Albemarle, Virginia

It sounds very cliché, but I really like the Constitution,” says Carlos, sitting near a bookshelf crowded with volumes on world and American history. “I really, truly believe in all of it. That comes with a lot of freedom and responsibility. I’ve tried to instill that in my kids — teach them that there are places that don’t have all of this. We like the freedoms that we have here.”

The Ibañezes enjoy the culture of their community as much as its natural beauty: “A lot of intellectual people here,” Carlos says. “Very diverse points of view. You can talk about different ideas.”

They wanted their two sons and their daughter to know that they, too, could talk about “different ideas” with their parents. “We keep talking with them,” Tatiana says. “We tell them if they work hard, they’ll be able to play hard.”

“Treat others with dignity and respect,” Carlos says. “Lean on your faith. Remember that you can always pray.”

“And if they hear someone say anything that bothers them, they can come to us,” Tatiana adds.

One day, her daughter took her up on that invitation. She hurried home from her seventh-grade classes and FaceTimed her mother in tears. “They showed me some videos at school that aren’t right,” she said.

Tatiana contacted her daughter’s teacher, asking to see what had been shown. The teacher sent two videos. One showed a black boy and a Muslim girl enduring lives of hardship, suffering, and condemnation … while a white girl their age enjoyed wealth and success. The other condemned a bigoted Catholic father for refusing to embrace his son’s homosexuality.

The Ibañezes’ daughter was confused. Her parents weren’t white, and they’d gone to good schools, enjoyed professional success, lived in a fine home. Her family was Catholic, and embraced and lived their Catholic faith.

Carlos and Tatiana requested a meeting with the teacher. They asked if she realized how racist the first video was in its assumptions, and how prejudiced the second was against people of Christian faith. Why, they asked, were these subjects germane to a middle school Language Arts class? And wasn’t there a more fair and thoughtful way to approach them?

Carlos and Tatiana Ibañez stand resolute in front of their daughter’s school.

Carlos and Tatiana Ibañez stand resolute in front of their daughter’s school.

The teacher didn’t seem to think so. Indeed, she wasn’t so much teaching, she told Carlos and Tatiana, as “facilitating the conversation.” The idea of systemic racism was going to be “embedded in all of the courses” taught at the school, for all age levels. Systemic racism was a simple reality, she said, “and teachers needed to stop it.”

That directive, the Ibañezes and Mierzejewskis learned, had come down from the Albemarle County school officials, some of whom had determined that too many parents’ views of race and gender were insufficiently “enlightened” … and that it was up to the schools to step in and make up for that. The new curriculum was designed to compel children to share school officials’ belief that whites and Christians, in particular, had created an oppressive society and were inflicting their bigoted religious value and priorities on minorities on everyone else. Since parents could not be trusted to agree with those views, school officials seemed determined to shoulder them aside.

The Ibañezes tried to explain to the teacher how much harm this new curriculum was causing — and how unnecessary it was. Their oldest son had come through this school and graduated with honors. He’d put a lot of effort into getting good grades, they said, and would gain admission to a major university as a result. He’d never expressed any sense of oppression or rejection on account of his race.

“The system worked,” they told her. “Until now, we never thought about the color of our skin. Our daughter never felt inferior — until this.”

Unmoved, the teacher insisted that racism was everywhere, and it was the job of educators to ferret it out. Carlos and Tatiana went home to have a talk with their children, reaffirming the values they’d tried so hard to teach them.

“This [new curriculum] is going to be in all of your classes, and you need to ignore it,” they explained — knowing, even as they said it, that for them, ignoring what was happening was not an option.

Carlos and Tatiana Ibañez discuss the impact of school board policies on their children.

Carlos and Tatiana Ibañez discuss the impact of school board policies on their children.

For Matt and Marie Mierzejewski, the alarm bells began ringing during a weekly Zoom presentation used by the principal of their sons’ school to pass information along to parents. The principal mentioned a new pilot program the district was rolling out, effective in a few days: “Courageous Conversations About Race.” That title struck them as odd. Why was the school focused on students’ race?

“We started asking questions,” Marie says. “‘What’s the purpose of this?’ ‘Can we see some of the materials?’” The answers seemed suspiciously evasive; the materials hard to get. Once obtained, though, “it confirmed our fears.”

The new curriculum involved the same ideas about systemic racism being forced on the Ibañez children: concepts like “racial dominance” and “white privilege,” insinuations that Christian beliefs were racist and evil, admonitions that anyone — adult or child — not actively condemning racism (as defined by the program and its authors) must be bigots themselves.

Classroom discussions on sexual orientation were equally prevalent. Children were invited to choose labels for themselves and encouraged to embrace the enthusiasms of the LGBT agenda.

“It felt very inappropriate for the age,” Matt says. “My fear was, you’re putting these ideas in the forefront of everyone’s minds … ideology about race and gender. Somebody’s going to be hurt. Somebody’s going to be singled out.”

The “somebody,” it turned out, was his oldest son.

Participating in a classroom discussion about the roles of men and women, he was asked by another student what he thought of people who identify as transgender.

A chalked message in the Mierzejewskis’ kitchen speaks to the centrality of their faith.

A chalked message in the Mierzejewskis’ kitchen speaks to the centrality of their faith.

“I believe God only created two genders,” he said. “Male and female, from the moment of conception.” He shared some thoughts from his church youth group’s recent study on the topic, and did so with such grace that his teacher pointed out to the class how respectfully he had shared his beliefs.

Soon after, though, a student not in the class sent the Mierzejewskis’ son an email: “[T]hought you may need a reminder, the bible says ‘love they [sic] neighbor’. so id [sic] appreciate it if you stopped with all that transphobic, sexist, misogynistic crap you’ve been spouting around.”

“This is what we were worried about,” Marie says. She forwarded the email to administrators, who — rather than address the bullying email with the student who sent it — decided to investigate her son for supposedly provoking the other child’s anger.

“She could not admit that the email he received was wrong,” Marie says. “That name-calling is wrong.” Marie pointed out that if her son had sent an email like the one he’d received, he would have been expelled. The administrator didn’t disagree.

“She made it very clear our Catholic beliefs had no place being expressed in school, even when he was asked,” Matt says. Indeed, officials across the district seemed increasingly bent on presenting a united front against parents’ concerns.

Nothing seemed to work. Teachers pointed parents to administrators, administrators directed them to district officials, officials sent them to the school board. Growing numbers of parents began sharing fears, frustrations, and ideas. They made calls, asked for meetings, sent emails, presented petitions at school board meetings. Request after request seemed to fall on deaf ears, as district officials aggressively embraced the new curriculum.

Divisions began to appear in Crozet — and rapidly deepened. Parents asked for more discussion and cooperation in working through the concerns. But district officials barely acknowledged them. One evening, Carlos saw a news interview with Tanner Cross, a teacher in Loudon County, Virginia, fighting his own good fight against a school policy driven by politicized ideology. Standing with him, answering questions, was an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom. On impulse, Carlos decided to reach out to ADF himself. Matt and Marie heard about what he was doing and wanted to help.

Matt and Marie Mierzejewski at their dining room table

ADF attorneys recommended a lawsuit, and the Ibañezes, Mierzejewskis, and three other families agreed.

“A lawsuit sounds almost harsh,” Carlos says, “but the idea was to put a pause — make sure, as parents, that we were giving input, and ensure that we were being heard.”

Earlier this year, a Virginia trial court dismissed the case; it’s now on appeal to a state appellate court, where that court is being asked to reverse the lower court ruling.

“Litigation can take a lot of different paths, and it can be very long,” says Kate Anderson, ADF senior counsel and director of its Center for Parental Rights. “We’re still in the preliminary stages. But I feel good about our arguments … this is a very strong case.”

“Really, the court is grappling with a new question,” says Vincent Wagner, senior counsel with ADF’s Center for Parental Rights. “It’s the first opportunity for the court to consider the discriminatory classroom practices required by a school board’s critical race theory-infused policy. Practices that are having a divisive impact on children, and that are being used to drive a wedge between these children and their parents.”

“[These] practices … are being used to drive a wedge between these children and their parents.”

—Vincent Wagner, ADF Senior Counsel

“It’s new ground all over the country,” says Anderson. “A lot of parent groups are watching this lawsuit carefully to see how they can apply it in their own school districts.”

“We do believe racism exists, and we want students taught true American history,” Matt says. “But they’re using this policy to push a political agenda … a hyperfocus on race that is going to cause racism.”

Besides which, Carlos says, time spent on CRT-based practices is time not spent on academics — a fact reflected in plunging test scores. The Virginia Department of Education released a report earlier this year that said schools’ focus on policies like Albemarle County’s policy “coincided with the widened gaps in student achievement.”

Carlos Tatiana Ibañez in their kitchen

“I would like schools to focus on academic achievement,” Carlos says, “and let parents do the parenting. It’s not their job. Parents need to be aware of what the children are — and are not — being taught.”

“What we’re asking doesn’t come from a place of hate or fear of those who look different or believe different things than us,” says Marie. “We’re not looking for a public school to be a conservative or Christian school. We just want it to be school. And a place where all views are respected.”

What Is ADF’s Lawsuit All About?

The lawsuit filed by ADF challenged the policy enacted by the Albemarle County School Board for multiple reasons:

  1. Racial discrimination (via classroom practices designed to divide students from one another based on their race)
  2. Suppression of free speech (of those opposing the school board’s ideas)
  3. Religious discrimination (using materials that denigrate various faith beliefs)
  4. Viewpoint discrimination (singling out and criticizing students — like the Ibañezes’ daughter and the Mierzejewskis’ son — for their beliefs)
  5. Infringement of the rights of parents to protect their children and direct their education

Soon enough, word of the lawsuit got around, and the names of the families participating were published in the local paper, along with warnings that “these people are harmful to your children.” The fallout came fast. Some friends stopped saying hello. Some quit letting their children carpool with Marie. Carlos’s oral surgery practice began receiving negative reviews online — from people he had never seen or treated.

“Parents need to be aware of what the children are — and are not — being taught.”

—Carlos Ibañez

But the families have also found a strong measure of support — often from unexpected places. Office staffers in the schools whisper encouragement. So do some of Carlos’s patients. People come up in the grocery, or while one of the couples is walking their dog. Members of local churches have let them know they’re holding prayer services on their behalf.

An acquaintance saw Matt at one of his boy’s baseball games. “Hear you’re in some lawsuit,” he said. “What is it?” Matt explained; the man nodded his agreement. “I vote pretty left,” he said. “But these are just kids, man. Let them be kids. They don’t need to be teaching this stuff in school.”

“That was a good takeaway for me,” Matt says. “It gives me confidence that the majority of people believe the same as we do. If enough people are willing to step forward and stand for the truth, we can help administrators see that we need to move away from these ideological programs. We can get there — because the support is there. I don’t think we’re in the minority.”

Marie Mierzejewski helps one of her daughters with homework.

Marie Mierzejewski helps one of her daughters with homework.

Both families conceded that the situation has impacted their children. The Mierzejewskis’ son “is getting the looks,” Marie says. “We’ve taken a stand, and he’s getting marked.” It saddens Tatiana to see her daughter having to do what she and Carlos did, all those years ago in Panama: be ever careful of what she says, and who she’s talking to.

But there have been rewards, too. “It’s made my faith stronger,” Tatiana says. “I pray more. And I’m trying to get my kids to do the same.”

“It’s been a great life lesson in doing what’s right, even when it’s hard,” Marie says. “Loving people who think terrible things of you. Not letting our hearts get hardened by that.”

“We had to show our kids what it means to ‘be the example,’” Carlos says. “If you believe something is wrong or that you’ve been wronged, you need to speak up. This is a country where you should be able to speak up and disagree and have those conversations.”

Marie had such a conversation, outside the polls in her neighborhood, where elections for the local school board were underway. Many of the parents had worked to get a candidate elected who shared their views on the school board’s policy, and she was standing near the polling station, urging people to vote for him.

A woman walked up to her and said, “I have a problem with this guy.” She was the mother of a student who identified as transgender, convinced her child would be mistreated if the policy were toned down or removed.

“We talked for 45 minutes,” Marie remembers. “It was kind and loving. A calm, reasonable, compassionate conversation. I doubt she wound up voting for our candidate, but I walked away thinking, ‘Thank You, Jesus.’ Both of us were feeling so protective of our children. But we heard each other.”

You’ll hear a lot, on the news, about the uproar over education in Virginia. But in Albemarle County, people are listening, too.”

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