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Youngkin’s education tip line gripes: ‘Beowulf,’ masks and ‘grooming’

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) at a discussion with officials at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, Va., on Sept. 1. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — A high school senior in rural Riner, Va., reported his English teacher to state authorities for the way she was teaching “Beowulf.”

“All my teacher wants to talk about is how the book is sexist because it portrays the warriors as men and not women,” the student wrote Jan. 30 to the teacher tip line that Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) had just set up to banish “divisive concepts” from public education. “I believe my teacher is in violation of Governor Youngkin’s Executive Order, which prohibits the teaching of ‘divisive topics.’ ”

The student’s email was one of 350 that the Youngkin administration released this week to settle a lawsuit that The Washington Post and a dozen other media outlets brought in April, after the governor refused to release tip-line submissions under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Media outlets file suit over Va. Gov. Youngkin’s teacher tip line

The 350 emails — many of them duplicates — are thought to represent a small fraction of the tips, although the total number submitted remains under wraps. Youngkin’s office referred a question about the total to Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R), who represented the state in the lawsuit. Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita declined to comment.

Youngkin claimed that the tip-line submissions fall under a FOIA exemption for a governor’s “working papers and correspondence.” Under the terms of the settlement, his administration released only those tips that were also sent or forwarded to a Virginia Department of Education email address.

Filed in Richmond Circuit Court by the media coalition, which also included the Associated Press, Tribune Publishing and NPR, the lawsuit contended that exemptions for working papers and correspondence did not apply to the tip line submissions — in part because, according to the suit, the submissions were shared with individuals outside of the governor’s office, including the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank.

“We are pleased that the attorney general’s settlement with the representatives of several media outlets preserves the principle that a constituent’s communication with a Governor is protected under the law and exempt from FOIA,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a statement. “The Governor wants constituents to be able to reach out to him without fear that their communications will not be kept confidential.”

The nonprofit ethics watchdog group American Oversight, which also sought copies of the tips, is still suing for them in a separate case filed in August in Arlington County Circuit Court.

The administration quietly pulled the plug on the tip line in September as tips dried up, Porter acknowledged Thursday, hours after Axios reported that messages the news outlet sent to the address had bounced back as undeliverable.

Shortly after taking office in January, Youngkin announced that parents should report teachers who discuss “divisive” concepts in the classroom by emailing helpeducation@governor.virginia.gov.

“We’re asking for folks to send us reports and observations,” Youngkin said in a radio interview around the same time. “Help us be aware of … their child being denied their rights that parents have in Virginia, and we’re going to make sure we catalogue it all. … And that gives us further, further ability to make sure we’re rooting it out.”

Critics called the initiative an attempt to intimidate teachers and suggested flooding the tip line with tongue-in-cheek complaints, such as the sarcastically dire warning that Virginia schools were teaching “Arabic numerals.”

None of the tips released this week took on that tone, although one woman used the tip line to draw the governor’s attention to standout physical education teachers around the state. She’d sent a copy to the teachers as well.

“I know the tip line was not designed for compliments, but I have used it this way the past 34 days while recovering [from] hip and back surgery,” Sheila J. Jones, who is on medical leave from her job as coordinator of K-12 health and physical education for Virginia Beach schools, wrote to one Loudoun school official. “Responses [from teachers] range from ‘you made my day/my morale has been low and this picked me up’ to ‘you made me cry happy tears.’ ”

None of the tips — she sent 35 in as many days — generated a response from the administration, “not even an auto-reply,” Jones wrote in an email to The Post on Wednesday. But some fellow educators applauded her approach.

“I love that you are using the ‘tip line’ for this purpose,” Ashley F. Ellis, Loudoun’s deputy schools superintendent, wrote back in an email included in those released by the state. “We’ve received a couple of emails from parents who have ‘reported’ the wonderful things their teachers have done to help their students. I hope those emails don’t go unread. It’s really hard to be an educator in Virginia right now, so anything we can do to celebrate our teachers is important.”

Many of the tips released this week reflect the K-12 culture wars that were central to Youngkin’s closing argument in last year’s gubernatorial campaign, when he criticized Democrats for extended school closures and mask mandates amid the coronavirus pandemic and accused school authorities of trying to “indoctrinate” students on matters of race.

One parent complained about a reading assignment that was “sympathetic” to immigrants. Another raised alarm about free online tutoring offered by a local school district, seeing it as “a potential path for unknown perverts” to prey on students. Some voiced concern that the concept of “gender identity” was included in the family life curriculum.

A Spotsylvania mother called for seven books to be pulled from school libraries, writing: “These books are, in my opinion, making children desensitized to healthy sexual relationships and are grooming in nature.”

Several parents were upset that certain schools were requiring masks early this year, at a time when the courts were still sorting out if Youngkin’s executive order attempting to ban mask mandates was legal. (The General Assembly eventually passed a law giving parents the right to opt their children out of school mask mandates.)

Youngkin urges calm on his call for a ban on mask mandates but also stokes division

In most cases, the sender’s name was redacted. Yet that was not the case for the dozens of emails from Kandise Lucas, a disabilities advocate representing families of special education students embroiled in a variety of disputes with local school districts.

Lucas — no relation to state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), one of Youngkin’s sharpest critics in the legislature — referenced the governor’s campaign rhetoric in some of her emails. In March, for instance, as she sent the tip line information about a family who had been denied their student’s scholastic records, concluding with, “when will Parents Matter?”

In an interview, Lucas said the administration did not respond to any of her “tips” — a disappointment, she said, because at the request of Youngkin’s campaign, she hosted a town hall meeting on special education at a Chesterfield church with first lady Suzanne Youngkin ahead of last year’s election. (Youngkin’s office could not immediately confirm the town hall event.)

“We were told the money was going to follow the child, parents matter,” said Lucas, a political independent who voted for Youngkin. “I thought they were listening.”

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