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The Conspiracy Theorists Are Coming for Your Schools

QAnoners and anti-maskers are embedding themselves into our political and civic life.
September 9, 2021
The Conspiracy Theorists Are Coming for Your Schools
(Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

By now you have probably seen the videos: Grainy footage of school board meetings and other public forums, as citizens line up at microphones to comment on COVID policies. It might almost seem impressive—a significant welling up of interest in local government and civic affairs—if so many of the videos that have gone viral didn’t feature angry people making statements that are factually false, risibly dopey, or outright threatening. Watch enough of these videos and you may start to feel that we are on the brink of an outbreak of violence against public officials, teachers, and fellow citizens.

The moments documented in these videos are mostly expressions of real anger, frustration, and confusion. But they must be understood in the broader context of what has been happening to the American right—the messy, overlapping sets of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and lies about the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election. We started the year with an attempted coup, laden with QAnon symbolism and apocalyptic rhetoric. The internet meme prophet “Q” may have disappeared, but like any good apocalypse QAnon didn’t die, it just changed. Deadlines for the QAnon doomsday (“The Storm”) and the extraconstitutional reinstatement of Donald Trump to the presidency have come and gone, but most of the instigators and spreaders of these ideas are still there. Some are now campaigning for office. Some are still trying to overturn the 2020 election. And now some are trying to overthrow our schools.

Over the past year, as the conspiracy theorists have come together under one big apocalyptic tent—the “stop the steal” election truthers, the anti-vaxers, the anti-maskers—we have seen organized campaigns of harassment, threats of violence, attempts to harm members of school administrations, and physical altercations at school board meetings when masks are mandated.

Remember that QAnon is a partisan murder apocalypse fantasy—because that affects everything else. Trump’s own spread of COVID-19 conspiracies and refusal to engage in basic public health measures certainly contributed to the partisan response to the pandemic, but QAnon’s adoption of COVID-19 conspiracies has spread it into the new year and made it politically important in a number of red states. We are still seeing large rallies against the federal government. But at the same time, QAnon activists are becoming ever more local in their politics. Whatever narratives were spun about suburbs as a locus of anti-Trump sentiment, they are also the place where anti-maskers and QAnon have merged to attack school boards and public health measures.

I live in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, where every four years our “flyover state” becomes the center of the feeding frenzy for the national political media. School board elections don’t get that same treatment, but we have been a case study for this appalling phenomenon all year. As Iowa schools returned to full-time in-person learning at the end of last month, Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, was busy tweeting that “Iowa was able to reopen schools safely and responsibly over a year ago” and attacking the Biden administration’s push against states with anti-mask mandate laws. What her comments neglect, of course, is that last year there were mask mandates, mandatory quarantines, virtual-school options, social distancing, and local control to change modes of instruction based on public health issues—all of which she and Iowa’s GOP-dominated legislature banned in January.

We’ve seen versions of this in a number of states—Texas and Florida are the most prominent examples, though six other states, including Iowa, also have bans on local mask mandates. But while some local districts and municipalities in Texas and Florida are fighting back, in Iowa, a culture of fear about pushing back against the state government has made it so no district has tried to work around it. Take Ankeny (pronounced ANG-kuh-nee), Des Moines’s northern suburb, where local school board elections and an election for a replacement state representative have become a focal point for QAnon infiltration of public education. One of the candidates for school board, Sarah Barthole, opened her campaign with Gov. Reynolds in attendance, with an interesting sound bite—that Reynolds and Barthole had together organized the bill that banned mask mandates, that “we met and we strategized and we planned. And not only was she working here to bring people together to change things on behalf of the children, but she really helped me organize parents and moms and teachers and kids all across the state.”

If Barthole and Reynolds were organizing the bill, the people they were bringing together include a pair of extremely vocal QAnon-adjacent Ankeny moms who call themselves the “Iowa Mama Bears,” Emily Peterson and Kimberly Reicks. Reicks’s TikTok account is rife with anti-vax and QAnon-adjacent material, including videos she posted from the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Peterson and Reicks brought conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxer Dr. James Meehan to an Ankeny school board meeting in April to spout anti-mask conspiracies, right after attending the Thrive Time Show’s “Health and Freedom” conference. The conference was an exemplary QAnon event—the event opened with the blowing of a shofar, Pastor Greg Locke spoke, alongside Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn, and Lin Wood. The next month, when Gov. Reynolds signed the ban on mask mandates, Peterson and Reicks both attended the signing ceremony. Since then, they’ve taken their anti-mask QAnon views to new audiences and more political events:

When Ankeny schools held a back-to-school forum last month, Peterson and Reicks were there recruiting and handing out shirts from their “Freedom Over Fear”-marked cars in the parking lot afterwards.

Enter the new school year and the lead-up to both school board elections and Iowa House District 37’s special election to replace John Landon, who died in June. Education is very clearly on the ballot in this race—Republican candidate Michael Bousselot has made “trusting families to make decisions about schools & masks” one of his campaign pledges, adopting the language Gov. Reynolds uses when discussing her mask mandate ban. Reicks and Peterson have campaigned for him. Bousselot’s campaign also uses “Hold the Line,” a QAnon rallying cry. Meanwhile, at least four Ankeny school board members received anonymous anti-vax and anti-mask postcards in August. Reicks and Peterson went on the “Patriot Streetfighter” YouTube show of QAnon supporter Scott McKay, and called on McKay and his followers to harass the Ankeny school board—especially calling for online harassment against Iowa Democratic activist Amber Gustafson and school board member Lori Lovstad by name.

And this coming weekend Reicks and Peterson are heading off to be featured speakers at a “For God & Country” gathering alongside Lin Wood, Mike Flynn, Mike Lindell, Greg Locke, and others in the broader QAnon sphere of influence.

The mess in Ankeny is a microcosm of what is happening nationally. Videos keep appearing of people showing up to school board meetings across the country, making accusations and false claims, and threatening board members—like in Lee County, Florida, at the end of August, where a woman claiming to be a registered nurse with two children told the school board members that they are “demonic entities,” and that “all of us Christians will be sticking together to take them all out. . . . These doctors that sit up here that were sneering at us and looking at us like we’re scumbags, they need to go back to fucking medical school.”

At a school board meeting last week in Seminole County, Florida, a man said that “the deep state medical establishment wants all of us to be depopulated. . . . They want us divided, they want all of us to fight each other so they can win, this is good versus evil, evil’s not going to prevail, all you’ve done is awaken the sleeping giant here.”

Little wonder that school board members are quitting after facing belligerent speakers, or that the same groups heightening the toxic rhetoric in these meetings are also pushing their own candidates to run. And where QAnon shows up, other far-right groups follow, like the Proud Boys who, as part of an anti-mask assault, attempted to enter three schools in Vancouver, Washington last week, forcing the schools into lockdown.

The pandemic is far from over, and the apocalyptic ideology of QAnon, so prevalent in the last couple years of far-right conspiracy-theory discourse and the coup attempt at the beginning of the year, has certainly not faded. The rhetoric and tactics have shifted, though—with the conspiracy theorists embedding themselves into our political and civic life. Every day it seems more likely that the kind of violence we saw at the national level on January 6 will be replicated in the states and cities and suburbs. Where they go one, they go all in on the bad apocalyptic conspiracy that will not die.

Thomas Lecaque

Thomas Lecaque is an associate professor of history at Grand View University. Twitter: @tlecaque.