The education community is gearing up for a new challenge: the QAnon candidate.
Followers of the group that traffics in wild conspiracy theories and misinformation are permeating all walks of life — from Congress to yoga studios — so it should come as no surprise that school boards appear to be a prime political target.
QAnon has been using the “Save Our Children” movement, with its noble-sounding cause, to pull people into the group’s web of conspiracy theories — the main one being a baseless claim that celebrities and government officials are engaged in pedophilia and sex trafficking of children.
The National Education Association publication NEA Today earlier this month ran what otherwise might seem like an alarmist article — “Is QAnon Radicalizing Your School Board?” — had there not been evidence that the group’s influence is spreading rapidly.
“Proponents of QAnon allege that Satan-worshipping pedophiles are secretly running the country, and they also have spread false information about COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the recent election and more,” according to the piece.
“When they get elected to local offices, they endanger citizens because their potential decisions — around budget, safety, school curriculum and more — aren’t grounded in reality.”
Reports of QAnon candidates winning local elections have been bubbling up across the nation. Local and national news organizations have noted that in some cases the candidates’ beliefs and social media posts about the conspiracy theories were not widely known before ballots were cast.
For instance, a newly elected school board member in the tiny Michigan city of Grand Blanc (pop. 7,784) has been called a QAnon sympathizer and, conversely, a person who cares deeply about education but is being criticized for her partisan views.
Regardless, it wasn’t until after she was elected that her past QAnon-related social media posts were discovered by a high school senior, according to CNN. That triggered protests and calls for her resignation.
A similar dispute was playing out in San Luis Obispo, where it wasn’t until after a woman with 25 years of teaching experience in the county won a seat on the school board that some of her extreme views surfaced.
“People had no idea this was going on,” Mayor Heidi Harmon told the San Luis Obispo Tribune, adding that voters didn’t have the “bandwidth to research the school board election” this year.
This isn’t just another anecdote about the dwindling local news coverage across the nation. During more robust journalistic times in the early 1990s, some evangelical candidates who viewed homosexuality as a sin and sought to inject a religious foundation into curriculum flew below the radar in certain parts of the country — including in San Diego County.
“Stealth candidates,” as they became known, built networks among churchgoers and campaigned around religious services and events — often with little attention from the news media. Some candidates downplayed their views on social issues and scored election upsets.
The tactic was dubbed the “San Diego model” because it was largely developed here and in nearby regions of Southern California.
There’s a line of thinking that QAnon followers, whether pursing elected office or other interests, may be more likely to hide their true colors in the wake of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. QAnon is now something of a “damaged brand,” said Matthew Remski, a cult researcher and co-host of the “Conspirituality” podcast, according to a Los Angeles Times article about the rise of QAnon in the yoga and wellness communities.
Parallels with the stealth candidates’ tactics of yesteryear only go so far, however. For one thing, back then there was virtually no online world, which is where QAnon is flourishing.
Quantifying the QAnon electoral interest isn’t easy at the local level. The largely unstructured group is still relatively new and most school board elections, including in San Diego County, aren’t until next year. Many potential candidates of all persuasions have yet to come forward.
At the congressional level, Media Matters, which bills itself as a progressive media watchdog, said 36 candidates planning to run in 2022 — all but three of whom are Republicans — have exhibited some level of support for QAnon.
Alex Kaplan, senior researcher at Media Matters, said on Twitter earlier this month that a major QAnon online forum featured a banner urging people to run for office. He posted a screen shot of the message.
“Local action = national impact. Take responsibility for your school committees or boards,” it read. “Get involved in the education of our children. Run for local, state and/or federal offices… NO MORE EXCUSES. Raise the Flag, Say the Pledge – General Flynn”
Presumably, that’s Michael Flynn, who resigned after briefly serving as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser and pleaded guilty to making false statements in connection with the federal investigation into Russian election interference. He has since been a high-profile supporter of QAnon conspiracy theories.
It’s too early to tell whether or to what degree QAnon-believing candidates may be running for school boards or other offices in San Diego County. The region has its pockets of people who spread some of the group’s conspiracy theories and engage in other forms of extremism.
Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified School District board, said it’s possible QAnon candidates may surface across the region. But he cautioned against jumping to conclusions just because someone was critical of school re-opening policy or coronavirus mask mandates or opposes vaccinations — however much others may disagree with them.
He did say some people commenting at meetings and protesting clearly are following talking points, which he believes line up with Republican themes across the country.
“I don’t know who connects to who. . . but they weren’t just local efforts,” said Barrera, a Democrat.
But he said that people are more passionate about issues facing school boards than at “any other level of government — because it’s about their kids.”
“It’s dangerous if people in our position are dismissive of them,” he said, adding that sometimes the critics are factually challenged.
“You need to reference the truth,” he continued. “If there’s a conscious effort out there that doesn’t pay attention to or trust the truth — or tries to tear down the truth and facts — it becomes very scary when you think about the decisions school boards make.”
That pretty much applies to society at large.