School board candidates Bill Collins, Matt Cree, Beatrice Dunn, Derek Payne and Linda Polesel are endorsed by Purple for Parents Indiana.

Five candidates for local school boards have been endorsed by an organization with controversial views on hot-button issues such as social emotional learning and sex education.

Local school board candidates are defending their decision to accept endorsements from the right-leaning group, Purple for Parents of Indiana.

Purple for Parents of Indiana is a state chapter of the Purple for Parents nationwide organization. The organization gave out endorsements to school board candidates across the state, including Franklin candidate Matt Cree, Clark-Pleasant candidates Linda Polesel and Beatrice Dunn, and Center Grove candidates Derek Payne and Bill Collins.

Because school boards in Indiana are nonpartisan, the Daily Journal looked into the organization and how closely local candidates align with its views.

About the group

Purple for Parents was formed in Arizona as an offshoot of Patriot Movement AZ. Patriot Movement AZ’s members-only Facebook group included anti-Muslim slurs, posts wishing ill for illegal immigrants and wanting a civil war with liberals, according to reports from the Arizona Republic.

The group formed in 2019 to counter the #RedForEd movement, which thousands of teachers joined together to demand higher pay and more money for schools. At the Indiana Statehouse, the movement led lawmakers to establish a $40,000 pay floor for full-time teachers.

Patriot Movement AZ’s administrator said the group was needed to prevent a socialist takeover of the education system, according to The Arizona Republic.

Along with opposing teacher unions, Purple for Parents opposes comprehensive sexual education, which the group has linked to breeding children for pedophilia. The group also opposes teaching children about homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism, which the group’s Indiana website called an “effort to obliterate traditional sexual morality and even biological sex in children’s minds.”

The Indiana chapter is listed on Guidestar as a nonprofit that is registered under a post office box in Winona Lake. The profile details that the organization serves Christians and says “our children are increasingly influenced by programs designed to separate their beliefs from what is taught in their home and toward a progressive understanding for the sake of social justice.”

The group also alleges teacher unions and “big pharma” have an outsize impact on Indiana schools, according to their website.

Some, though not all, issues the group discusses online have been associated with national Republican political platforms. Many articles shared on the group’s Facebook and website are from sources described as right-leaning or conservative news sites, such as The Epoch Times, The Federalist and The Daily Wire.

The Indiana Purple for Parents chapter did not respond to requests for an interview. After the first request, the group took to their Facebook page to warn candidates about speaking to the media.

“Some of you are getting contacted by news outlets about our endorsement of you which tells us our opposition is in a panic,” the post says. “Proceed with caution in dealing with them and remember, you’re under no obligation to speak with them.”

Organization’s claims unfounded

Purple for Parents Indiana leaders often make claims without citing sources or offer dubious sourcing to back them up. Several videos shared on the group’s website have been pulled after they were shared, meaning the video was taken down by the platform it was posted on because it was deemed to contain misinformation. Other videos have been removed for copyright claims.

Many videos containing debunked theories remain on the organization’s website.

YouTube videos made by the group’s chief executive officer Jennifer McWilliams link SEL to Critical Race Theory, or CRT, and Marxism.

“In the real world, Marxism has everywhere and always nurtured hatred, death, slavery, torture, starvation, shortages, political repression, religious persecution and other evils,” the Indiana chapter’s website says. “And yet, under the guise of SEL programs and ‘nurturing empathy and compassion,’ millions of children are having their minds poisoned by being force-fed actual Marxist propaganda and fake history.”

The group makes these assertions while school districts around the state and in Johnson County have said CRT is not taught at this level of education and is not in the state’s curriculum.

CRT is a college-level concept that asserts racism is institutionalized in law and American life. Though CRT has no apparent ties to SEL, the group attempts to link the two concepts by associating them with a school consultant associated with IU and a type of teaching pedagogy, or technique, used in Indiana schools.

Holly Lawson, Indiana Department of Education spokesperson, said in an email that SEL is meant to teach students to network with others through social awareness and sensitivity, recognize and manage their emotions and work well with others in a team.

SEL is a required part of the curriculum in Johnson County schools and is unrelated to CRT, district leaders say. District officials responded to parent concerns last year and shared information about SEL taught in schools, yet rumors still persist.

During a forum held in Whiteland held a year ago, Indiana chapter president Rhonda Miller expressed disdain for SEL, as well as comprehensive sexual education, or CSE. The group says author Judith Reisman, a critic of sex education, says it exposes children to “obscenity, perversion, sexualization, LGBT(QIA+) propaganda and more.”

Reisman’s writings allege Alfred Kinsey, a biologist and sexologist that founded the organization that is today known as the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, was associated with pedophilia and grooming. Reisman’s work, however, is described by Southern Poverty Law Center as “unrelenting pseudoscience” with no proof to back up her claims. In contrast, Kinsey, then, and the institute, today, are respected in the research community.

Reisman’s claims are a basis of the Indiana chapter’s assertions that SEL and sex education are dangerous for children.

“Now we’ve got SEL to rewire and brainwash,” Miller said during the forum. “Then you’ve got CSE to sexually groom them for sex trafficking and pedophilia.”

Per the state department of education, sex education is not mandated for Indiana schools, and if a school elects to teach sexual education, it must be based on abstinence, Lawson said. Schools also must allow parents the option to opt out of sex education, she said.

The group was also involved in a campaign this session to pass Senate Bill 17, which would have removed the exemption for primary and secondary schools and public libraries from distributing obscene material to children. The bill died in committee earlier this year after passionate testimony from people for and against the bill.

Questions on Clark-Pleasant assignment

Last week, the Purple for Parents Indiana Facebook page posted a photo from a “sexuality matching game” assignment they claimed was given to students at Whiteland Community High School. The photographed assignment asked to match terms such as “cisgender,” “transgender,” “gender identity” and “sexual orientation,” among others, to their definitions.

The group claimed this assignment was an example of CSE and SEL curriculum in schools. However, they provided few details on what class or what grade level the assignment was presented to at Whiteland high school.

Officials at Clark-Pleasant Community School Corporation aren’t aware such an assignment was distributed to students, spokesperson Rick Hightower said in an email.

“We have very little information on the validity of this post or the accuracy of it or if the assignment was part of any classes at (the high school),” Hightower said. “As always, we welcome conversations with our staff and parents about any curriculum concerns.”

Purple for Parents Indiana did not respond to a request from the Daily Journal asking for more information on the assignment and proof it came from Whiteland.

Candidates speak on endorsements

Local candidates said they received a questionnaire from Purple for Parents Indiana and they were given an endorsement based on their responses.

Two candidates, Cree and Collins, said they accepted the endorsements because they agree with certain positions the group promotes, though they don’t support all the group’s positions.

Cree, a candidate for the Union Township seat on Franklin’s school board, said he made sure to note which positions he disagreed with on the questionnaire, particularly the group’s assertions that SEL is CRT. Leaders from Purple For Parents call for the removal of SEL due to what they view as possible linkage with Transformative SEL, which the organization’s website says deals with issues of race and class.

“I disagree with them about SEL. SEL is actually a part of Indiana core curriculum for early development. When used properly, it teaches self-awareness and empathy for others,” Cree said. “In some school systems, they’ve tried to use SEL to use it to open the door to LGBTQ or trans rights and maybe we feel that should be taught at home, but I have no qualms with SEL and it should be a part of our children’s education.”

Cree didn’t specify which school districts have done this.

He also differs from the organization on sex education.

“Sexual education has a place in schools,” Cree said. “I disagree with graphic videos or borderline pornography.”

Collins said he accepted the endorsement because he felt parents were being ignored and censored at school board meetings, which is something the organization also stands against. The major driving force behind Collins’ decision-making will be Center Grove parents, he said.

“I want parents to have a voice in the direction of Center Grove,” Collins said. “If parents as a whole want to get rid of SEL, I want to get rid of SEL. If parents as a whole want SEL, we can have that conversation.”

In response to a Daily Journal questionnaire sent to school board candidates in September, Collins voiced opposition to Transformative SEL, which he said does not deal with emotional regulation but instead tells children what to think.

“Transformative SEL is designed in its current form to teach a child what is and is not normal or OK. That is not a school’s place,” Collins said. “That is the role of parents.”

Collins also said he disagrees with the group’s stand against sex education.

“I don’t have a problem with sex ed,” Collins said. “It’s been a part of education since I was a student and parents have an option to opt out.”

Polesel, a candidate for the Clark Township seat on Clark-Pleasant’s school board, said she wanted to keep topics of conversation strictly academic, which is why she accepted the endorsement.

“Purple for Parents engages Hoosiers to protect children from harmful agendas,” Polesel said. “I believe teaching morals and values to children is the responsibility of caregivers and parents, not the responsibility of the school system. Schools should teach academics and leave social issues to parents. I absolutely agree with this view. That’s all I need to say.”

In her Daily Journal questionnaire responses, Polesel said SEL had evolved into something she couldn’t support and said CRT is a slippery slope, claiming it is rooted in Marxism and communism.

“This is how communism takes over,” Polesel said in the questionnaire. “Our schools must ban any curriculum that promotes partisan opinions, activist propaganda, obscene material or that pits students against each other on the basis of race.”

Payne said he believes lessons on ethics should be left to parents. He would like to see SEL and sexual education removed from the curriculum.

“For me, I think it’s a positive endorsement and I agree with their mission statement,” Payne said in an email. “I absolutely do think there should be a boundary on what is taught in schools and what is taught in the home. We can’t just give our schools free range to talk about, distribute and teach any content they choose.”

Dunn, a candidate for the Pleasant Township seat on Clark-Pleasant’s school board, declined to discuss the endorsement. In her response to the Daily Journal questionnaire, she shared objections to Transformative SEL, and talked about how she thinks it is related to CRT.

“Transformative SEL promotes an inclusive and equitable learning environment instead of focusing on preparing students with the basic skills and knowledge to be a functioning, literate member of society,” Dunn said in the questionnaire. “Since 2020, the new definition is Transformative SEL and now is centered through the lens of racism and equity.”

Impact on candidates

Though debate on making school board races partisan sparked this year in Indiana, the office remains nonpartisan. Though they ultimately failed, seven bills in the Statehouse this session sought to politicize local school boards. One of those bills received a committee hearing in the House, but never came up for a vote.

Though not an officially partisan organization, the group uses right-wing theories to support its assertions, while pledging support for candidates for a nonpartisan office.

The group’s endorsement, given its nature, could be either a liability or a boon for the candidates, said Laura Merrifield Wilson, associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis. Typically, voters have to know about an endorsement and care about it for it to matter in their decisions at the ballot box, she said.

“If they’re recognizable and generally liked by voters, it’s huge, getting their support. Voters think, ‘if they like them, I will as well,’” Wilson said. “With a fringe group, I’m not sure it’s the same payback with the benefits of endorsement. It might have greater risks. All of this is only influential if voters know and care, and it has to be both.”

People may be leery of national organizations endorsing local candidates, she said.

“People are a lot more suspicious and cautious of endorsements from national organizations. Why would a national organization care about our schools and our kids? Why would they be interested?” Wilson said. “Any time it’s a national interest, ‘Why do they care about this race?’ Every organization has an agenda, and people may be suspicious of what that might be.”

Cree acknowledged the group has been controversial, but said he would ultimately make decisions based on how people in the school district feel, rather than the organization.

“I think certain voters view this group as far right, which could be a turnoff to more liberal voters,” Cree said. “Part of my responsibility as a board member is to remain impartial and look out for the interests of the schools, children and parents.”

Collins, also, said his decisions will be based on what parents of the district want.

“The only platform I have is I’m pro-parent,” Collins said.