Hocus Pocus in the Public Schools: The Witch Trials Come to Texas Education

Recently, my fiance and I fired up Disney+ and bathed in the nostalgic glow of "Hocus Pocus 2," the 30 years-in-the-making sequel to the '90s cult classic starring Bette Midler, Sara Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy. The first 20 minutes of the film fill in the back story of how the iconic Sanderson Sisters formed their coven in the woods outside Salem, Massachusetts. As happens in so many villain origin stories, the true evil lies not in the sisters themselves but in the community of which they are an unlucky part. 

Seventeenth-century Salem, as portrayed in the film (and not entirely divorced from its actual history), is a hotbed of jealousy, ignorance, and religiously-motivated hatred, presided over by a sniveling bully who is all too willing to consolidate his power by cloaking himself in the garb of righteousness and channeling the irrational fears of his less sophisticated followers. All accomplished bullies know that they require two things to be really successful: an out group to demonize and victimize and a mob to help them do it.

As with most art, "Hocus Pocus 2" can serve as a metaphor for a current age and, more specifically, the place where I was raised and where I also began my teaching career.

Some North Texas Suburbs Have Been Seized by a Modern ‘Witch Panic’

The suburbs of North Texas, at first glance, may seem like an unlikely place for a Puritan-style moral panic to bubble up. The people there are generally well-educated and work in jobs that require college degrees and critical thinking skills. These jobs pay well enough to make it possible for those working them to purchase McMansions and SUVs, and the public schools are (or were) a point of pride within the community. 

But a moral panic, a witch hunt, centering on how children are educated and by whom, is exactly what is occurring in the bedroom communities of Dallas-Fort Worth. One such community is Grapevine-Colleyville, where I lived and was educated from first- through twelfth-grade, where my mother taught for many years, and where I taught for several. The bulk of my immediate family still lives there. My niece and nephew attend the same elementary school I did. 

Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, once considered one of the best school districts in Texas, if not the nation, is now fully consumed by the same sort of mass mania that gave rise to the witchfinders of prior epochs. It is a movement funded by faraway billionaire oil executives in tandem with a “Christian Conservative” cell carrier (whatever that is), playing on the unfounded fears and prejudices of citizens who fear that the power they once had in the world is slipping out of their grasp. 

Last May, the citizens of Grapevine-Colleyville elected an ultraconservative school board majority by a very thin margin and chaos quickly came to reign. There have been no hangings, and the stake-burnings have only been metaphorical, but in only a few short months, the results of handing the keys over to a bunch of bullying moral entrepreneurs have already been staggering.. This time, the subjects of the witch hunts are not heretics in the traditional sense, but students and teachers of color, members of the LGBT+ community, and anyone who would dare position themselves as an ally to these oppressed populations.

‘It Would Be Funny If It Weren’t Terrifying’

Last month, the board majority passed a raft of deeply cruel policies aimed at rooting out and  bullying into silence students and staff who don’t espouse conservative views on topics such as race, sexuality, gender, or American history. or, worse yet, oblivion. During the same meeting where these policies were approved in the name of protecting children, a resident of the district with school-age children went on a tirade that included a “joke” about sexual assault. He was not gavelled down or escorted out. 

Who, Exactly, Do the Children Need Protecting From?

Board meetings have devolved into conspiracy and recrimination, rendering what was once a stable and stellar institution a national laughingstock. Adding to the general hysteria, one board member admitted publicly to the existence of a secret list of “poison” teachers. Scholastic book fairs have been canceled and teachers have reportedly packed up their classroom libraries for fear of being accused of peddling critical race theory or social-emotional learning or the like. 

The board retained the services of a local GOP-affiliated law firm for legal advice before passing a ban on discussion of “gender fluidity.” The superintendent has announced he will leave in January. The district refused the donation of “In God We Trust” posters (provided by a truly bizarre new state law), presumably because they were printed in LGBT+ pride colors

The list goes on. It would be funny if it weren’t terrifying. The Salem Witch Trials resulted in 25 deaths, the European inquisition in thousands; the Red Scares of the 1910s and '50s and the Satanic Panic of the '80s ruined countless lives.

If you’ve read this far and perhaps think my "Hocus Pocus" analogy is stretched a little thin, I invite you to read this facebook missive, posted in a public GCISD community forum, in which the Sanderson Sisters make a cameo.

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As I said, I once taught in Grapevine-Colleyville; now I barely mention my time there in work discussions because of the Scarlet Letter it represents on my resume. I receive private messages on a regular basis from former colleagues and friends still working in GCISD who fear that the proverbial torches and pitchforks will be coming their way next. 

I would never work there again. 

As an openly gay man, I have no illusions about how quickly I would become the victim of this current crusade. I’m glad I got out when I did. Others, both students and staff have not been so lucky.

It’s Time for Bystanders to Take Courage and Confront the Bullies

If there is any hope in all of this, it is that all witch hunts eventually peter out. After all, even the bloodshed in Salem lasted only a few seasons. But it takes courage to stop it sooner. 

People who have previously stood by out of politeness or disinterest must begin to call the bullies on their bluff and stand up to the posses of angry townsfolk they’ve worked into a frenzy. They must stand up for basic principles like tolerance, free speech, and free inquiry. 

They must make their voices heard late into the night at board meetings and stage student walkouts–make the bullies uncomfortable. They must stand between the weak and their would-be persecutors. They must vote against fear mongers and demagogues, even in the boring elections.  By the way, school board elections are supposed to be boring. 

It may take a long time. The state of Massachusetts did not formally apologize for the carnage of the Salem Witch Trials until 1957. But the damage can be undone.

Clint Von Gundy
Clint Von Gundy is the son of a teacher and a lifelong educator specializing in advanced academics and gifted and talented education. He is the Director of Professional Learning at thinkLaw.us. You can follow him on Twitter @CTVonGT.

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