“MISD put ‘woke’ politics over the safety of our children,” the flyers read in all caps, above a news clipping about the Timberview shooting, which reportedly resulted from a fight between two Black students. The flyers, paid for by a conservative political action committee, warned that the Mansfield school district had “stopped disciplining students” based on “Critical Race Theory principles.” As a result, it said, “kids were nearly killed.”
But the Mansfield mailer omitted a key detail: Some of the local school policies that it was attacking were initially implemented three years ago, not as part of a liberal takeover of the suburban school system, but at the urging of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Trump administration.
The mailers reflected a growing belief among some conservative parents, both in Mansfield and nationally, that school programs meant to address students’ emotional well-being have become vehicles for indoctrinating children with progressive ideas about race, gender and sexuality. The flyers, sent in mid-April ahead of a school board election, also previewed how some prominent Republicans would respond one month later after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas — making a visceral connection between anti-racism initiatives in schools and parental fears about the physical safety of their children.
The fight in Mansfield reveals how quickly conservative messaging has evolved when it comes to hot-button debates over education, racism and school violence.
In the wake of school shootings in Texas and Florida in 2018, many Republican leaders, including Abbott, enthusiastically endorsed efforts to expand school-based social emotional learning programs, which they viewed as a way to prevent mass shootings without taking action on gun reform. Pointing to reams of academic studies, advocates say these teaching and disciplinary approaches help students cope with adversity while steering them away from violence.
Since last year, however, those educational concepts have been swept up in a movement to rid schools of initiatives meant to address racism and inequity — a conservative backlash that experts say is now threatening the very programs that Republicans once presented as a solution to school violence.
Far-right groups and grassroots parents have attacked social emotional learning — and related practices such as restorative discipline, which focuses on character development rather than punishment alone — as a “Trojan horse” for critical race theory, an academic study of racism that some on the right have used to label lessons on racism and gender that they find objectionable.
Conservative activists have seized on the fact that some social emotional learning programs encourage children to celebrate diversity, sometimes introducing students to conversations about race, gender and sexuality. And opponents take issue with one of the underlying goals of such initiatives: to reduce racial disparities in school disciplinary outcomes.
As a result, some Republican lawmakers who previously supported social emotional learning have soured on the concept. Several GOP-controlled state legislatures have considered bills to ban social emotional learning from schools. And many of the Republican proposals for stopping mass shootings following the massacre in Uvalde have instead focused on empowering schools and police to crack down harder on students who show signs of violence.
“It’s sort of ironic that these groups are throwing social emotional learning under the bus when these are the very things that our kids need now, and they need them now more than ever before,” said Donna Lord Black, who leads the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for Texas, a nonpartisan group that advocates for these programs in schools.
The result of this sudden partisan reversal: Education experts say one of the few bipartisan solutions to school violence has been reduced to another culture war talking point — one with the emotional power to potentially turn out voters while driving a deeper wedge between them.
In Mansfield — a quickly diversifying suburban school district that encompasses some areas that are majority Black, and some areas that are majority white — the political mailers blaming the Timberview shooting on “woke” school policies stirred intense feelings among residents.
The flyers included an image of a white child cowering in a school hallway under the words, “Restore safety. Restore sanity. It’s time for a new school board.”
VanDella Menifee, the mother of a Black student who was at Timberview on the day of the shooting, said the mailers incorrectly implied the district had stopped disciplining non-white children at a high school where three-quarters of the students are Black or Latino.
“I believe those flyers were designed to play to parents’ fears and to divide this community,” Menifee said.
Mindy Stonecipher, a white mom who has criticized Mansfield’s social emotional learning and disciplinary policies, said she shared Menifee’s concerns about the political mailer, which she called “extreme.”
But Stonecipher, who leads a group of concerned parents called Voices for Mansfield, said she agrees with the flyer’s underlying point. She argues that Mansfield’s embrace of social emotional learning has tied up educators with new responsibilities and left some feeling powerless to discipline unruly students — ultimately, making classrooms less safe.
“This is a giant social experiment,” Stonecipher said. “And the public school system is the lab.”
‘A pathway to hope’
The shooting at Timberview High School on Oct. 6 started with a fight between two students, according to police and video of the classroom brawl later posted on social media. After a teacher broke up the altercation, witnesses told police that one of the students, an 18-year-old senior, walked over to a backpack, pulled out a handgun and opened fire.
A teacher and two students were wounded; no one was killed. One of the teens spent two weeks in the hospital recovering. The accused shooter was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
At a town hall meeting two weeks later, Bruno Dias, the school district’s director of safety, security and threat management, gave a presentation outlining Mansfield’s efforts to prevent classroom violence. That included a threat assessment and social emotional learning program implemented under a 2019 Texas law that was passed with broad bipartisan support and signed by Abbott following a mass shooting at Santa Fe High School near Houston.
“It is a requirement, it is a mandate, and we are excelling at it,” Dias said of the program. “It is important to note that we’ve been able, in multiple cases, to turn what could have become a pathway to violence as it relates to students into a pathway to hope because of this threat assessment process.”