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In April of 2021, Cecelia Lewis had just returned to Maryland from a house-hunting trip in Georgia when she received the first red flag about her new job.
The trip itself had gone well. Lewis and her husband had settled on a rental home in Woodstock, a small city with a charming downtown and a regular presence on best places to live lists. It was a short drive to her soon-to-be office at the Cherokee County School District and less than a half hour to her husband’s new corporate assignment. While the north Georgia county was new to the couple, the Atlanta area was not. They’d visited several times in recent years to see their son, who attended Georgia Tech.
About This Partnership
This story is part of an ongoing collaboration between ProPublica and FRONTLINE that includes an upcoming documentary.
Lewis, a middle school principal, initially applied for a position that would bring her closer to the classroom as a coach for teachers. But district leaders were so impressed by her interview that they encouraged her to apply instead for a new opening they’d created: their first administrator focused on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
DEI-focused positions were becoming more common in districts across the country, following the 2020 protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The purpose of such jobs typically is to provide a more direct path for addressing disparities stemming from race, economics, disabilities and other factors.
At first, the scope of the role gave Lewis pause. In her current district, these responsibilities were split among several people, and she’d never held a position dedicated to anything as specific as that before. But she had served on the District Equity Leadership Team in her Maryland county and felt prepared for this new challenge. She believed the job would allow her, as she put it, to analyze the district’s “systemic and instructional practices” in order to better support “the whole child.”
“We’re so excited to add Cecelia to the CCSD family,” Superintendent Brian Hightower said in the district’s March 2021 announcement about all of its new hires. (The announcement noted that the creation of the DEI administrator role “stems from input from parents, employees and students of color who are serving on Dr. Hightower’s ad hoc committees formed this school year to focus on the topic.”) Hightower acknowledged “both her impressive credentials and enthusiasm for the role” and pointed out that, “In four days, she had a DEI action plan for us.”
Cecelia Lewis: “The District Identified This as a Need”
During her early visits, Lewis found Cherokee County to be a welcoming place. It reminded her of her community in southern Maryland, where everyone knew one another. But leaving the place where she’d been raised — and where, aside from her undergrad years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she’d spent most of her adult life — wasn’t going to be easy. Before her last day as principal of her middle school, her staff created a legacy wall in her honor, plastering a phrase above student lockers that Lewis would say to end the morning messages each day: “If no one’s told you they care about you today, know that I do … and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it!”
How We Got the Interview
Cecelia Lewis initially was reluctant to talk about her experience in Georgia. For several months, she did not respond to requests for an interview. Lewis then declined to comment in March, citing safety and privacy concerns. After multiple additional requests, Lewis agreed to an interview, her first regarding what happened to her in Georgia, seeing it as a way for her experience to help people understand what educators are facing in these times.
Lewis was beginning to prepare for her move South, spending as much time with friends and family as possible, when she got a strange call from an official in her new school district. The person on the line — Lewis won’t say who — asked if she had ever heard of CRT.
Lewis responded, “Yes — culturally responsive teaching.” She was thinking of the philosophy that connects a child’s cultural background to what they learn in school. For Lewis, who’d studied Japanese and Russian in college and more recently traveled to Ghana with the Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad program for teachers, language and culture were essential to understanding anyone’s experience.
At that point, she wasn’t even familiar with the other CRT, critical race theory, which maintains that racial bias is embedded in America’s laws and institutions and has caused disproportionate harm to people of color. In a speech the previous fall, then-President Donald Trump condemned CRT as “toxic propaganda” and “ideological poison.”
The caller then told Lewis that a group of people in a wealthy neighborhood in the northern part of the county were upset about what they believed were her intentions to bring CRT to Cherokee County. But don’t worry, the district official said; we just want to keep you updated.
The following month, inside a gabled white clubhouse overlooking the hills of a Cherokee County golf course, dozens of parents from across the county had assembled on a Sunday afternoon for a lesson in an emerging form of warfare. School board meetings would be their battlefield. Their enemy was CRT.
One of several presenters at the meeting was Rhonda Thomas, a frequent guest on conservative podcasts and the founder of the Atlanta-based Truth in Education, a national nonprofit that aims to educate parents and teachers about “radical ideologies being taught in schools.” “So what is critical race theory?” Thomas asked the crowd. “It teaches kids that whites are inherently racist and oppressive, perhaps unconsciously,” and that “all whites are responsible for all historical actions” and “should feel guilty.”
She added: “I cannot be asked for repentance for something my grandparents did or my ancestors did, right?”
Thomas stressed that parents should form their own nonprofit groups and cut ties with their schools’ Parent Teacher Associations. “The PTA supports everything we’re against,” she told them.
Another presenter, a local paralegal named Noelle Kahaian, leads the nonprofit Protect Student Health Georgia, which aims to “educate on harmful indoctrination” including “comprehensive sexuality education” and “gender ideology.”
Kahaian emphasized how to grab attention during upcoming school board meetings. Identify the best speakers in the group, she told them, adding: “It’s OK to be emotional.” Be sure to capture video of them addressing the board — or even consider hiring a professional videographer.
“It’s good in case Tucker Carlson wants to put you on air,” Kahaian said. “It really helps.”
Inside the Clubhouse
Presenter Noelle Kahaian talks to the crowd about the “tsunami strategy.”
She then briefed them on how to file grievances about school board members’ teaching licenses and on their right to request school board members’ cellphone records.
And she advised them on the benefit of collaborating with “outside forces” to file open records requests to school systems for employee emails and curriculum plans that could provide evidence of inappropriate material being taught in classrooms. Doing so would allow those outsiders to “take some of the heat.”
But there was one agenda item that would inspire the crowd to take more urgent action than any other: They had to figure out what to do about the Cherokee County School District’s decision to hire a woman named Cecelia Lewis.
“And when I got a text message from somebody saying that this person was hired, I immediately was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, where are my people?’” said another speaker, Mandy Heda, a Cherokee County GOP precinct chair who introduced herself as a parent of four students in the district.
Thomas, Kahaian and Heda did not respond to multiple requests for comment or to a list of questions detailing the points they raised at the clubhouse meeting and elsewhere.
After asking the crowd to look at the Maryland district where Lewis was coming from, Heda wondered how Lewis could “leave that at the border” (she didn’t elaborate on what “that” was) and how the longtime educator could come “to Cherokee County and not want to change us.” (Like Cherokee, the district where Lewis was a principal serves a majority-white county that voted for Trump in 2020 — though Heda and others in the clubhouse seemed unaware of this.)
A man interjected, saying he’d contacted the Cherokee County School District to find out “how they arrived at the choice to hire” Lewis. Hadn’t there been any local candidates, he asked.
Presenter Mandy Heda criticizes the district’s decision to hire Cecelia Lewis.
“You cannot tell me, you know, that you can’t find somebody else qualified,” Heda responded. “And if you’re looking for her to be Black, that’s fine. But that’s not what this is about. This is not about the color of her skin. It’s what she’s going to bring into our district and what she’s going to teach our children.”
Another person in the crowd later asked if the arrival of Lewis was a done deal. Several confirmed that it was.
“We don’t have to accept it, right?” another man asked, the crowd’s energy rising in response with a collective yes. “We can change that, right?”
“In some way, shape or form,” another woman vowed.
The May 2021 clubhouse meeting, a recording of which was provided to ProPublica by a parent who attended, provides a window into the ways in which conservative groups quickly and efficiently train communities to take on school districts in the name of concepts that aren’t even being taught in classrooms.
National groups, often through their local chapters, have provided video lessons and toolkits to parents across the country on how to effectively spread their messaging about so-called school indoctrination. Parents Defending Education has created “indoctrination maps” tracking everything from a district celebrating “Black Lives Matter week” to one that allows students to watch CNN Student News, while the Atlanta-based Education Veritas and Kahaian’s Protect Student Health Georgia provide portals for anonymously reporting educators supposedly sympathetic to CRT, DEI and other so-called controversial learning concepts.
In the wake of 2020’s summer of racial reckoning, as the work of anti-racist authors shot to the top of bestseller lists and corporations expressed renewed commitments to diversity initiatives, conservatives mounted a counteroffensive against what they viewed as an anti-white, anti-American, “woke” liberal agenda. And with that effort came a renewed vilification of CRT, a four-decade-old theory that, contrary to its opponents’ accusations, is rarely if ever taught in K-12 public school systems (it typically is taught in graduate-level college and law school courses). That effort quickly snowballed into complaints about what used to be basic history lessons involving race and slavery, which organized groups began conflating with CRT and campaigning for their removal from curriculums.
Nearly 900 school districts across the country have been targeted by anti-CRT efforts from September 2020 to August 2021, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, San Diego, found. Teachers and district equity officers surveyed and interviewed for the report “often described feeling attacked and at risk for discussing issues of race or racism at all, or promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion in any way. Equity officers told us that at times they feared for their personal safety.”
The report also stated: “Only one equity officer described a year free of anti ‘CRT’ conflict.”
“It makes me very sad for my colleagues,” said Cicely Bingener, one of the UCLA researchers and a longtime elementary school educator.
Using local media coverage and lawsuits, ProPublica has identified at least 14 public school employees across the country, six of them Black, who were chased out in part by anti-CRT efforts in 2021. Some of the educators resigned or did not have their contracts renewed, while others were fired by school boards where elections had ushered in more politically extreme members.
Since January 2021, legislatures in more than 40 states have proposed or passed bills and resolutions that would restrict teaching CRT or would limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. Four days after the meeting in the golf course clubhouse, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp released a statement solidifying his stance against CRT and asking the state Board of Education to do the same. “I urge you to take immediate steps to ensure that Critical Race Theory and its dangerous ideology do not take root in our state standards or curriculum,” it read.
On June 3, 2021, the Board of Education did just that, joining Utah’s as the first such groups to pass resolutions of that kind. Georgia’s declared that “the United States of America is not a racist country, and that the state of Georgia is not a racist state.”
In predominantly white Cherokee County, 40 miles north of downtown Atlanta, the fight over CRT has led some residents to question whether they still recognize the community they thought they knew.
“These are our neighbors,” said Leanne Etienne, a Black mother of two Cherokee County students, one of whom served on the superintendent’s ad hoc committee that led to the creation of the DEI position. “These are people who are the parents of the children my kids go to school with. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. You don’t know who to trust. You don’t feel safe.”
After that April call from the school district official, Lewis was confused but remained optimistic. She read up on CRT and determined it had nothing to do with her role. Then came more calls.
In one, a district official asked Lewis if she has social media accounts. “Only a LinkedIn,” she replied. (Lewis barely has a digital footprint. She has never posted anything on social media nor made any professional statements in regard to CRT or any other controversial topic.) The official explained that some of the people upset about her hiring were complaining that a Twitter user with her name was posting Marxist ideology.
Around that same time, according to Lewis, several emails and handwritten letters were showing up at her school in Maryland, calling her a Black Yankee and saying her liberal thinking is unwanted. She saved only one, with typewriting on the envelope. The return address was just “A Cherokee County Citizen.”
“They ultimately just said, you know, ‘We don’t want you here, and we don’t want you to push us to find out what will happen if you come here,’” Lewis said.
On May 18, 2021, two days after the meeting at the clubhouse, Cherokee County’s schools communications chief and its school board members received the first of approximately 100 form letters that would flood their inboxes over a 48-hour period, demanding that Lewis be fired.
One of approximately 100 form letters opposing Lewis’ hiring that were sent to Cherokee County School Board members and district officials during a two-day period in May 2021.
(Screenshot by ProPublica)
Another parent wrote to a school board member, citing Cherokee County’s recent census statistics: “Did you know that 77.8% of the population is considered ‘whtie [sic] alone’ 7.7% are black and 11.1% hispanic? Are we now in a county that is going to cater to a handful of people?”
Lewis said she was willing and eager, once she arrived in Georgia, to speak to concerned parents. “I just felt as if there was a misunderstanding,” she said, “and as soon as I [would] have an opportunity to get there and really speak on my own behalf, then it was going to be OK.”
She also felt comforted by the fact that school district officials were regularly checking in with her, offering reassurances that they were monitoring the situation and that everything would be OK “once they get to know you.”
Lewis tends not to talk about racism in terms of her professional life. She said that, until she got the Black Yankee email, she had not experienced racial prejudice and was accustomed to learning and working in majority-white spaces. She also recalled being surprised when someone from the district pointed out that a hiring like hers was rare, in that there were not many minority leaders working in the district.
“I did not think that in 2021 that that was really a thing,” Lewis said, noting the district’s proximity to Atlanta, with its high concentration of Black leadership and affluence. “And that was probably just ignorance on my end. And I mean that in the purest form of ignorance, of just not knowing. I didn’t know.”
On May 20, 2021, one of Lewis’ soon-to-be colleagues called to say that the people upset about her hiring were claiming to have spotted her around Cherokee County and were sharing with one another her supposed locations. Lewis, however, was still in Maryland.
That same day — following an increase in social media posts, emails and phone calls complaining about Lewis and CRT — the district installed metal detectors and assigned extra security at the county building where school board meetings are held.
Lewis soon received yet another call. Someone from district leadership asked if she was planning to watch the board meeting that night. She replied that it hadn’t been on her radar.
“You should watch it,” they said.
Well before the Cherokee County School Board meeting’s 7 p.m. start time, people hoping to get inside were being turned away. The room and the overspill viewing area in the lobby were at capacity. Those who were denied entry gathered outside near the parking lot, where they could peek through windows and glimpse the large screens mounted in the boardroom. Others hung around outside, planning to watch the livestream of the meeting on their phones.
At home in Maryland, Lewis and her husband sat in their bedroom, the laptop propped up between them.
Inside, just before the meeting started, mothers in black T-shirts printed with the words “I don’t co-parent with the government” smiled and posed for pictures. A husky man with a deep voice formed the beginning of the large prayer circle that inched toward the dais where district officials, student delegates and Cherokee County’s seven school board members were seated.
The first order of business was introduced by Mike Chapman, a Republican board member who’d held his seat for more than two decades: a resolution against teaching CRT and the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times series that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” (Conservatives have railed against it as racially divisive and have often lumped it together with CRT in an attempt to ban both from schools across the country.)
What came next caught Lewis off guard.
Hightower, the superintendent, read from a statement: “While I had initially entertained and publicly spoken to the development of a diversity, equity and inclusivity, DEI plan, I recognize that our intentions have become widely misunderstood in the community and it created division.
“To that end, I have concluded that there will be no separate DEI plan.”
To Lewis, it was as if the “foundations of everything that I was asked to do have just shifted, and I was not a part of the conversation.”
State Rep. Brad Thomas, a Republican, spoke next. He assured the board that, as the father of a Cherokee County student, he’d done his research after fielding complaints about Lewis’ hiring.
He said he now had a plan of his own in the works: He would be drafting legislation to ensure that teaching CRT and the 1619 Project would be illegal statewide. “We’ve pulled language from Tennessee’s bill. We’ve pulled language from Texas’ bill. We’ve pulled language from Oklahoma’s bill. We’ve pulled language from Idaho’s bill,” he said. “And I’ve put some of my own language in there.”
Heda, the Cherokee County GOP precinct officer who’d spoken at the clubhouse meeting four days earlier, also addressed the board. She claimed that the definition of DEI had changed over time and now represents the views held by people with “the same woke political understanding of power dynamics and social positions.”
“We cannot fix racism with institutionalized racism,” she said.
A neighbor of Heda’s approached the lectern next. The woman, who is Black, spoke in favor of the decision to hire Lewis. It was the first time she was mentioned by name.
According to one observer, that’s when the crowd gathered outside began beating against the building’s windows.
“No, no, no!” they screamed in unison, the sound reverberating through the lobby as their fists pounded the glass.
The scene outside the May 20, 2021, Cherokee County School Board meeting.
(Provided to ProPublica)
A subsequent speaker, a parent named Lauri Raney, was rewarded with applause when she asked the board, “My question to you is, if you vote to do away with the DEI program, does that mean the new DEI officer has her offer rescinded? Because why do we need to pay $115,000 for somebody who doesn’t have a job to do anymore?”
At that moment, Lewis recalled, her husband said: “That’s it. We’re not doing this. You are not going there.” He left the bedroom in disgust.
Not long after, a volunteer from the campaign of Vernon Jones, a Black Republican who at the time was running for governor (Jones later switched to a run for Congress), read a statement to the school board from the candidate. “Embracing the teaching of critical race theory is a slap in the face of Dr. King’s teachings,” said the volunteer, Stan Fitzgerald. “Taxpayer-funded anti-white racism is still exactly that — racism.”
Upon hearing that, Lewis thought about how Martin Luther King Jr. promoted humanity and love, and she was devastated to hear his words used by strangers to attack her. Everything she had just witnessed felt contrary to his ideals.
Breaking down in tears, Lewis closed her laptop. She could no longer watch.
“That cut me so deeply,” she said. “It hit the core of who I am as a being.”
Lewis missed the part when Miranda Wicker, another parent and member of the county’s Democratic Party, addressed the board. “Those who want this ban are spouting talking points fed to them by an outside special interest group with a deeply political agenda to keep people riled up against an invisible other,” said Wicker, who was interrupted by loud shouts.
“Stop the disrespect!” school board Chair Kyla Cromer yelled at the crowd after banging her gavel. “Stop! Stop!”
Cromer threatened to adjourn the meeting early but ultimately allowed it to continue.
The board voted 4-1 with two abstentions to pass the anti-CRT and anti-1619 Project resolution. But the crowd was still worked up. Cromer moved to take a break. The livestream of the meeting was paused. But the yelling continued. And things spiraled out of control, to the point that Cromer abruptly adjourned the meeting.
One man in the crowd screamed: “I’m furious!”
Another declared: “We’re going to hunt you down!”
The scene inside the May 20, 2021, Cherokee County School Board meeting, as Chair Kyla Cromer moves to adjourn.
(Provided to ProPublica)
The school district’s chief communications officer, Barbara Jacoby, would later say that’s when the students attending the meeting started crying.
“They had to be rushed out of the room,” Jacoby recalled. She went with them and the school board members as security guards ushered the group to a conference room behind the dais. “And then we had to be walked to our cars,” she said. “We had to be followed out of the parking lot onto the highway by police officers.”
In response to questions from ProPublica, the school board provided a statement describing how some members requested school police escorts to their homes, where city and county agencies conducted extra patrols. In response to the other questions, including ones about anti-CRT letters the board received, Jacoby responded on its behalf, stating “the information you note below is correct.” Cromer and Hightower declined to comment.
Jacoby said the scene felt unreal. “It’s certainly not anything anyone who comes to work for a school district expects would ever be part of their job.”
Cecelia Lewis: “I Don’t Even Know Why We Continue to Give Life to It”
Lewis’ phone kept ringing that night. People from the district were telling her that this is not who they are, that they’re embarrassed by the actions of their neighbors and church members, that they’re sorry she had to witness this.
In a phone call the next morning, Hightower apologized to Lewis. He said he still wanted her to come to Cherokee. Another administrator asked if she would consider a different position.
But by then she’d made up her mind. She told Hightower: It’s just not going to work.
“I can’t say I blame her,” Cherokee County School District chief of staff Mike McGowan said in an interview with ProPublica. “There was so much misinformation about who she was, what she stood for and what was going on politically.”
In response to a detailed list of questions to the district covering all aspects of Lewis’ experience in Cherokee County, Jacoby responded that “we have no further comments to add.”
The following morning, before it was publicly known that Lewis had quit the job she’d never started, a former Cherokee County student who’d attended the school board meeting appeared on “Fox & Friends” and warned that the board was still pursuing CRT under the guise of other concepts. “I think that they’re relying on wordplay to try to confuse Cherokee County representatives or constituents that aren’t necessarily completely involved because they’re busy with their day-to-day life,” the guest, Bailey Katzenstein, said. She claimed that CRT initiatives would be carried out by “someone from Maryland” in the form of programs “synonymous” with CRT: DEI and SEL (or social emotional learning). SEL is a decades-old child development concept that emphasizes building self-awareness, teaching kids how to better communicate, fostering relationships and making responsible decisions, according to scholars and researchers.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable,” Katzenstein said of the school board not banning DEI and SEL along with CRT. “They’re hiding behind closed doors, and I think it’s completely full of cowardice.”
The Fox host, ending the segment, said: “If you thought this was an elite, New York City school problem, Bailey Katzenstein just told you the exact opposite. This is spreading. It’s going all over the country, and it’s having real impacts.”
The next day, Cherokee County parents used their private Facebook group to continue to report Lewis “sightings.” (People with access to the group shared screenshots of posts with ProPublica.)
A post to a private Facebook page falsely claimed that Lewis was in Cherokee County and working for the school district.
(Screenshot provided to ProPublica)
“My husband swears he saw Ms. Lewis at Ace yesterday afternoon!” one woman wrote, adding, “He saw the Maryland plates and the driver looked just like her.”
But Lewis was still in Maryland. She hadn’t returned to Georgia since the house-hunting trip.
In a statement quoted in the Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News a week and a half later, Lewis wrote: “I wholeheartedly fell in love with Cherokee County when I came to visit and accepted the position, but somehow, I got caught in the crossfire of lies, misinformation, and accusations which have zero basis.”
When Lewis and her husband actually relocated to Georgia later that summer, the Cherokee parents’ private Facebook group lit up.
They’d figured out her next move.
Five days after Lewis quit her would-be job in Cherokee County, the district’s human resources director forwarded a copy of her resume to the chief academic officer at his former school district, one county over. “Great catching Up!” he wrote. “Talk soon.”
Officials in the Cobb County School District, the second-largest in the state, called Lewis soon after. They wanted to talk to her about an opening they had for a supervisor of social studies, a job title she’d held in another school district earlier in her career.
Lewis did not know it, but the position already had been subjected to scrutiny.
In the summer of 2020, in wake of Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, the Cobb County School District began to more tightly manage the way racial issues are handled in social studies teacher training and more closely vet the materials trainers and educators could use.
According to records obtained by ProPublica, the previous, longtime social studies supervisor had been reprimanded for hosting a district-approved speaker from the state Department of Education. A teacher had complained about the speaker’s presentation, titled “All are Welcome.”
The social studies supervisor’s boss wrote in the letter that most of the presentation was appropriate. There were just a few issues.
The boss wasn’t happy with the “sensitive content and images” and “probing questions” in the presentation. One slide included a photo of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin atop Floyd, his knee pinned to Floyd’s neck, along with two questions that challenged educators in how they approach lessons about such controversies: “What can we share with our black students to help them cope with the bottom?” “What did the man on top miss out on learning that could have made him a better person?”
Additionally, the director’s letter reminded the social studies supervisor that there already had been discussions about references to the 1619 Project, about vetting all presentations, about monitoring social media posts for the “message they send to the greater Cobb County community” and about ensuring that outside organizations the social studies supervisor might partner with would present controversial issues in a manner acceptable to the school district.
In 2021, the social studies supervisor retired. Lewis — who holds a master’s degree in teaching the subject — applied to replace her.
In June, at around the same time that Lewis got the call from Cobb County to come in for an interview, Cobb’s seven-member school board passed its own anti-CRT and anti-1619 Project resolution. Three members — all of them Black Democrats — abstained, noting this was not the first time they were blindsided by the addition of a problematic, last-minute agenda item.
Once a Republican stronghold represented by Newt Gingrich in Congress, Cobb County flipped to blue in 2018 and has remained that way since. By 2020 the county elected its first Black sheriff and county commission chair. Though the school district’s population is 30% Black and 24% Hispanic, the school board majority remains white and conservative.
By mid-July, another metropolitan Atlanta school district was courting Lewis. But by then she was living in Cobb County and decided to follow-up with the district there. It had been weeks since she’d gone through multiple rounds of rigorous interviews, during which Cobb officials complimented her on her credentials, saying she’d be an asset in multiple leadership roles, according to Lewis.
Lewis recalled that a district official finally called her back toward the end of July to apologize for the delayed response and explained that the superintendent had been involved in vetting her hiring, something that typically doesn’t happen for a person who applies for a supervisor role.
The district offered Lewis the job on that call, and she accepted. She was asked to report to work the next day, July 20.
By the end of the week — right around the time when the Cherokee County parent circulated the tip in the private Facebook group that Lewis might now be heading to Cobb — Lewis got a call from a school district leader. It was someone above her boss, Lewis said. According to Lewis, the person requested an immediate, off-site meeting.
It was already after 6 p.m. Lewis had just settled in for a manicure and pedicure. She left her appointment and headed to a nearby Panera Bread, where she and the district official took a seat near the back of the restaurant.
The person explained that complaints about her were “percolating” out of Cherokee into Cobb, according to Lewis, who also remembered the person telling her to be careful; she’s an at-will employee (meaning she can be fired at any time for any reason without notice) and the person might not be able to help her. Lewis also recalled the person telling her that she shouldn’t have to endure in Cobb what she went through in Cherokee.
Lewis was stunned. “I did nothing but showed up to work, signed a contract, agreed to do what I was asked to do in the job description,” she told ProPublica. “And yet again, I’m getting attacked.”
Around the same time, Cobb’s four Republican school board members, its superintendent and another district official, John Floresta, were fielding complaints about the decision to hire Lewis.
“I am appalled that anyone would advocate for the racist, sexist, and Marxist ideology that is Critical Race Theory,” one woman wrote to the group in an email, which ProPublica obtained through an open records request. Her name was redacted. She went on to say, among other things: “I insist that you pass real policy reforms that forbid indoctrinating children with CRT in classrooms,” “Anyone found pushing CRT on CCSD time should be immediately terminated,” and “Make no mistake: press releases and toothless resolutions just won’t cut it.”
“I agree with you 100%,” Cobb County school board member Randy Scamihorn responded. “Thankfully, the majority of the Board did vote on June 10th to ban CRT and 1619 Project from our schools in Cobb County. We then directed Superintendent Ragsdale to implement the enforcement of this decision, which he readily agreed to do.”
“I’m glad to hear you feel that way, but it certainly seems we need to remain vigilant,” the woman replied. “Why has Cecelia Lewis been hired by Cobb? She was hired by Cherokee schools for CRT and was run off because the parents put up such a fight. Now Cobb has quietly hired her. This isn’t a good move for the optics that Cobb has supposedly banned CRT.”
There is no record of an email reply from Scamihorn.
In response to ProPublica’s request for comment on the email exchange, a spokesperson for the district responded on behalf of Scamihorn: “Your assertion that Mr. Scamihorn ‘agreed 100%’ that ‘anyone pushing CRT on CCSD time should be immediately terminated’ is grossly inaccurate and not consistent with the email you are referencing. The Cobb Board did pass a resolution which directs the District to focus on keeping schools, schools, not on political distractions.” When asked to elaborate on what was inaccurate or inconsistent, the spokesperson did not respond.
Floresta responded to a different email complaining about CRT, assuring the sender that it was not allowed to be taught per district policy. The sender then pointed to the hiring in Cobb of “Cecelia Lewis, a well known advocate for CRT and DEI agents who actually resigned from Cherokee County recently because of the push back from the parents.”
“How in the heck did Dr. Cecelia Lewis get hired on?” the email continued. “It is ASTOUNDING to think that anyone would think this was a good idea. We need answers on this, immediately, and an explanation of her role within the County. To list her under Social Studies does not fool any of us.”
On Lewis’ fourth day on the job, she got a message from one of the district secretaries.
“I received a call from a parent wanting to know if you were the same person hired in Cherokee County. I just told her that someone would give her a call back to address her questions.”
Lewis’ boss soon told her to direct all such messages to her office. She also told Lewis to hold off on responding to any emails regarding her hiring, after Lewis replied to a positive note that came in from a supportive parent.
The following week, Lewis was supposed to introduce herself to all the social studies teachers at a districtwide training meeting. She said she’d been asked, before the Panera meeting, to prepare a presentation and share the social studies program vision.
She said she was then asked to shorten the presentation to a simple series of slides. Then, to one slide.
Finally, she learned she wouldn’t even be acknowledged at the meeting as the new supervisor of social studies.
“When the day came, I was told that I had to sit in the back and flip the slides for the presenter,” Lewis recalled. “I was not introduced at all.”
Lewis said she did receive warm welcomes when she individually introduced herself to teachers, some of whom said they’d heard she’d arrived and wondered when they’d meet her.
Not long after the meeting, she recalled, other aspects of her job began to change. Her emails to social studies teachers would need to be vetted before she could hit send (not a single one was approved). And she’d now be on a special project, reviewing thousands of resources that had already been approved and adopted by the district.
“It was pretty much them tucking me away,” Lewis said. “Every meeting was canceled. Every professional learning opportunity that I was supposed to lead with my team, I couldn’t do. Every department meeting with different schools, I was told I can’t go.”
According to Lewis, the only direct communication she was allowed to have without vetting was with other supervisors.
“They were wasting their money,” she said. “I’m just sitting here in this room every day, looking through resources that have already been approved, which makes no sense, and not given much direction as to what I’m looking for — just making sure they’re aligned to standards, which obviously they were.”
At the end of August, Lewis requested a meeting with her supervisor and the district’s chief academic officer. She told them that she would be submitting her two-week notice.
The next day, she got one last email from district leadership.
“As we discussed, it is never our intention, as an organization, for an employee to feel anything other [than] the support and collegiality associated with a positive and professional work environment,” the email said. “Please know your concerns and feedback, as an individual and employee, were heard and valued.”
ProPublica submitted to the Cobb County School District and its school board a list of detailed questions about the hiring of Lewis, the community blowback and the changes to her job. A school district spokesperson responded: “Cecelia Lewis was employed by the Cobb County School District during the summer of 2021, voluntarily submitted her letter of resignation in early fall of 2021, and like every Team member, her contributions and work for students was greatly appreciated.”
Lewis’ departure from not one but two school districts didn’t put an end to the efforts of anti-CRT groups. In fact, the groups used Lewis’ retreat as a rallying call.
In August 2021, Educate Cherokee — a group with a now-defunct website that identifies itself on Facebook as a local chapter of the national conservative nonprofit No Left Turn in Education — announced that it would be holding an event. According to an online notice about the event, it would be led by Heda, who had spoken at the clubhouse and the school board meetings, and Raney, who at the school board meeting had called out Lewis’ salary. In the notice, the group claimed the elimination of “a new DEI administrative position” as one of its accomplishments. “Bring your ideas, energy, and enthusiasm,” the meeting notice said. “We need to convert all of it into an effective election effort to eliminate CRT by replacing all of the current school board members up for re-election with new conservatives committed to our cause.”
In the months to come, four school board candidates — Michael “Cam” Waters, Ray Lynch, Sean Kaufman and Chris Gregory — established themselves as part of a collective effort to gain a majority on the board, in part by ousting board members who’d come under attack following Lewis’ hiring.
The candidates dubbed themselves 4CanDoMore and launched a website, the top of which states: “In May of 2021, Cherokee County was taken by surprise when it was announced that our ‘conservative’ board voted to bring in Cecelia Lewis, as Administrator on Special Assignment, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). However, her history was riddled with Critical Race Theory (CRT) ideologies in her previous school district. Why would the current board vote 7-0 to bring in someone to implement programs not in alignment with the family values of our community?”
A promotional photo of the 1776 Project PAC’s first endorsements of the year: a slate of Cherokee County School Board candidates who are opposed to Lewis’ hiring and CRT.
(Screenshot by ProPublica)
In March of 2022, the 4CanDoMore candidates got a boost. The 1776 Project PAC, founded last year by author and OANN political correspondent Ryan Girdusky, had been singling out open school board seats across the country and supporting candidates who ran on platforms to ban CRT and the 1619 Project. (The super PAC’s name is a nod to an advisory committee launched in 2020 by Trump partly in response to the 1619 Project. Trump’s 1776 Commission sought to support a “patriotic education” in schools and oppose lessons that teach students to “hate their own country.”)
In 2021, the 1776 Project PAC backed 69 school board candidates in eight states. Fifty-five won their seats, its website claims, including all 15 candidates the PAC endorsed in Texas.
The 4CanDoMore candidates were the 1776 Project PAC’s first endorsements of 2022.
Girdusky did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the decision to zero in on Cherokee County candidates.
In May, two of the 4CanDoMore candidates lost their primary bids to incumbents. The other two, Kaufman and Lynch, advanced to a June runoff. Another familiar face in the anti-Lewis effort also made it to the runoff: Kahaian, the paralegal who’d told parents in the clubhouse how to prepare for an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show. She’s running for a seat in Georgia’s House of Representatives.
Even before any potential shake-up on the school board, some changes have already arrived in the Cherokee County School District. Among them is a ban on the word “equity” from any district initiative.
“We had to stop using the word because the word was redefined by people,” said Jacoby, the Cherokee County Schools communications director. “And so we had to take the word out of the equation, and say, OK, fine, ‘access.’ There’s no way around that access is important.”
After moving back home to Maryland, Lewis continues to work in education, although her role doesn’t primarily focus on DEI. “I may not have the specific acronym tied to my official title, but I am committed to celebrating diversity and promoting equity and inclusion,” Lewis said.
She also noted that, even in the face of increasing attacks, educators should not lose sight of their value and the difference they can make in children’s lives. “No one can take that away from us.”
Cecelia Lewis: “The Work Still Needs to Be Done”
Today, the metal detectors remain installed at the entrance to the building where Cherokee County School Board meetings are held. A staff member is permanently assigned the task of evacuating students in attendance, should the need ever arise. And an increased number of security officers are strategically placed throughout the meeting room and beyond.
Standing in line outside the building before a recent school board meeting, mothers identified themselves to each other as “a Marjorie” — meaning a proponent of the speaking style of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, known for her provocative and unfiltered claims.
A little while later, once the meeting was underway, a man who described himself as a school bus driver and a grandfather stepped to the microphone during the public comment period.
A security officer keeps tabs on the May 19, 2022, Cherokee County School Board meeting. After the events of 2021, county officials increased the number of security officers at the meetings.
(Lynsey Weatherspoon for ProPublica)
“This is not California or New York. This is Cherokee County, Georgia. We can choose what and how our students learn on a local level,” said the man.
“I was raised in a different era, in the ’50s and ’60s, where we were equipped to survive and succeed.”
Mollie Simon contributed research.