An online posting by Hamilton County school board member Rhonda Thurman critical of Taylor Lyons - founder of the student rights activist group Moms for Social Justice - has sparked controversy and prompted some county residents to send letters to the board in Lyons' defense.
Thurman, R-Hixson, sent a letter to The Chattanoogan website on Monday as a response to Lyons' comments at Thursday's board meeting, where Lyons condemned the board for allowing Moms for Liberty - a conservative parental rights activist group - to hold school board candidate forums on school grounds.
"Suffice it to say, we are deeply disturbed by the unprecedented access you have granted to a highly partisan, special interest, extremist group on our public school property to host a partisan event," Lyons said Thursday.
Lyons went on to criticize the board for "opening the door to whatever fringe extremist groups would like to host events on our public school grounds, so long as they cross their finger, wink at you, tell (you) they're nonpartisan for the afternoon and fill out the proper paperwork."
Moms for Social Justice activists and other community members took issue with Moms for Liberty hosting the forums due to the group's politics and public endorsement of Republican school board candidates.
Lyons asked board members if they would allow groups like the Ku Klux Klan or the Proud Boys to host an event on school grounds if they also submitted paperwork and followed procedures.
"You see this organization," Lyons said, referring to Moms for Liberty, "is receiving marching orders from their parent national organization and those national marching orders are to target our teachers, and that is what they are doing."
Shortly after that, Thurman left the meeting.
"Lyons compared M4L to the KKK and the Proud Boys," Thurman wrote in her letter. "I refused to listen to any more of the vitriol coming from her mouth, so I left the room."
Thurman said she wrote the letter because she believes Lyons is a hypocrite, citing a program in which Moms for Social Justice has been given access to space in the schools to make books available to students - books Thurman and the Moms for Liberty see as left-leaning.
"She's complaining about allowing a group to use our school buildings for debate, open debate, for everybody to see, while they want to have these classroom libraries when nobody really knew what was going on," Thurman said in a phone call. "It's just so hypocritical."
Moms for Social Justice's Classroom Library Project began in 2018. The group raised more than $20,000 to create new classroom libraries. Some of the books contained LGBTQ and racial themes, which Thurman and members of Moms for Liberty have objected to.
"Mrs. Lyons accused the board of 'dancing around' board policy by allowing a 'highly partisan' group to hold a public forum in two of our schools," Thurman wrote. "Yet, she has no problem with MSJ taking up space in 17 classrooms in Hamilton County with their 'classroom libraries.' MSJ has asked for book donations from LGBTQIA+ authors to stock their libraries. To Mrs. Lyons, it is an outrage for a room full of adults to hold an event livestreamed for everyone to see, but it is OK for her group to put unvetted books in 17 classrooms without parental knowledge."
Lyons said the books were never a secret.
"We publicly posted pictures of our library," Lyons said by phone. "We publicly posted our book lists because we're very proud of those things. We have never been secretive about the Classroom Library Project. So, to say that we did it without anybody knowing is just a complete falsehood and misrepresentation."
For her, the issue comes down to ensuring teachers have a voice, she said. Many were afraid to share their opinions about the forums for fear of retaliation or losing their jobs, Lyons said.
On Thursday, Lyons provided the board with anonymous comments submitted by teachers.
"It pains me to have to write this statement," one teacher said. "It pains me, even more, to have to write it anonymously. However, the group I will be commenting on today - Moms for Liberty - has made it clear that they will target any teacher who speaks out against them."
Another teacher wrote that they felt "uncomfortable and unrepresented" by the board allowing the group at the schools.
"As someone who represents and works for HCS, I currently do not feel respected or protected by those who made this detrimental decision," they wrote.
Lyons said Thurman's letter only validates teachers' fears about retaliation.
"The reason that we presented the teacher statements anonymously is because we feared backlash, and this proved the point," Lyons said. "If those statements had not been anonymous, then the backlash would be on them instead of me. I'm just a private citizen and a concerned parent."
Thurman said the article was simply her response to Lyons.
"She was making her point, and I was making mine," Thurman said. "I was telling people that I think she's a hypocrite. I mean I'm not trying to be a bully or anything, but I mean, she started this. If she wants to call people names and stuff, I'm going to point out that I think she's being a hypocrite."
A private citizen
After reading Thurman's opinion piece, Wendy Proctor, a community activist and attorney, said she was inspired to speak up.
"I was really concerned because I think we've all seen on a national level where private citizens have been singled out by (former President Donald) Trump and have received death threats, and their safety has been compromised," Proctor said in a phone call.
She wrote a letter to board Chairman Tucker McClendon, R-East Ridge.
"Thurman's decision to publish an op-ed in the Chattanoogan publicly attacking a private citizen (who also happens to be a parent with children who attend HCSD schools) demonstrates conduct unbecoming of an elected official," she wrote. "It is in no way appropriate for a sitting member of the school board (or any elected office) to use their platform to publish a bullying rant against a private citizen."
Proctor cited board policy that prohibits board members from engaging in partisan politics as well as a policy that requires board members to make it clear their opinions are their own, not the board's.
"(Thurman) is definitely promoting a partisan agenda," Proctor said. "And if she wants to write an op-ed as an individual, she certainly does have free speech to do so. But she is supposed to make it clear that she was doing it on an individual basis, that she's not speaking on behalf of the board, and she didn't do that."
McClendon said he's received at least five letters like Proctor's and plans to respond to them. He added that while he can control what happens in the board room, Thurman is well within her First Amendment rights to write an opinion piece.
"I have control as board chair of what goes on in a board meeting," McClendon said. "And if Mrs. Thurman would have went after Mrs. Lyons in that setting, then I would have ended that. I have no control over what Mrs. Thurman does in an op-ed."
As far as facility use, McClendon said school buildings are always open to any member of the public.
"Moms for Social Justice could have candidate forums if they wanted to," he said. "Schools have been used for Democratic Party things, Republican Party things in the past."
He said board members have been put in the middle of politics that have nothing to do with them or their responsibilities as board members.
"It's just hyper-partisanship coming down to a local level," McClendon said. "They don't want people to use our buildings, but they're OK with putting books at our schools. And the group that used our school buildings are not OK with them using books in our schools. And so it's just a back and forth between really two hyper-partisan groups."