Exclusive: Arizona Parents Attempt to Set Precedent in Rebuke of Public School Activism

People display signs during the Kentucky Freedom Rally at the capitol building on August 28, 2021 in Frankfort, Kentucky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Arizona parents are seeking to set an example for others across the country as they are the first to file a complaint under the state’s newly implemented Parents’ Bill of Rights after their school district violated their right to “direct the upbringing [and] education … of their child.”

Shawn and Amy Souza spoke with Breitbart News about their experience with Peoria Unified School District (PUSD), claiming that an apparently politically motivated social studies teacher, Mrs. Holli Trentowski, ignored their wishes to opt their then-seventh grade daughter out of an assignment the Souzas believed was “gruesome, violent, and inappropriate.” Instead, Trentowski, after having agreed to give the Souzas’ daughter an alternative assignment, ended up giving her the original one.

“The assignment that the kids were given was to read an excerpt of, you know, killing a cow by slicing its throat or children’s ears and fingers falling off from the freezing cold,” Amy told Breitbart News. “They had all these choices of disgusting events, and then they had to draw a book cover about one of them.” The excerpts were apparently taken out of context from socialist activist and author Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle

There were other topics that gave the Souzas pause as well. According to Amy, there was a whiteboard in her daughter’s social studies class — which appears to be pictured here — that was a “timeline of discrimination.”

“It had Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, you know, all the all the historical figures on it until it got to … Black Lives Matter [and] the George Floyd protests,” Amy described further. “So that basically started us on the process of finding out that a lot of things were slanted politically by this teacher in this class, and we just felt like our daughter’s education was being wasted on her having to argue with her teacher about how she felt about things.”

Speaking of Trentowski, Amy said that “she was very open about how she felt after the, you know, during the elections, after the election. … She would talk negatively about Donald Trump in the classroom, and, you know, just the kids all knew — it was absolutely clear to them — where she stood politically, and she was somewhat intolerant of them pushing back.”

The Souzas stressed the point that they were not making a political determination about the teacher, but rather said that the insertion of politics in the classroom at all was “totally inappropriate.”

“We like the fact that in this country, people can have differing views on things,” Amy explained. “It’s part of why we’re a successful country, but at the same time, a seventh-grade social studies classroom is not the place to have an agenda. … We want our kids to be able to form their own opinion.”

“It doesn’t matter what the assignment was, I mean, it literally could have been algebra,” Amy continued. “But we have a right to, if we feel like it’s harmful, to opt-out and to participate in our child’s education. … And we want other people to know that if you speak up, you will eventually be heard, but you have to advocate for your children.”

Amy is referencing Arizona’s new Parents’ Bill of Rights, which expands the avenues of recourse for parents who believe their public school districts, or personnel within, are acting afoul of their child’s best interest, such as political activism. One avenue is filing a complaint directly with the Arizona Department of Education, which has the potential to be taken up by the state Attorney General’s office.

“We’re just parents that want our kids to have a good education,” Amy said. “Arizona is not top of the line for education. We’re down more at the bottom. So we really just wanted to focus — and both of our kids are tested gifted — so we wanted them to get the most out of their education possible, especially since we’ve just been coming back to school” after the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, the “Arizona Department of Education Parental Rights Handbook” assures that, “The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, health care and mental health of their children is a fundamental right,” while also protecting parents’ “right to direct the education of the minor child … [and] the right to access and review all records relating to the minor child.”

According to the Souzas, however, this latest incident with the Sinclair book was merely the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Shawn detailed to Breitbart News “numerous” attempts to get access to the curriculum in the first place, a right protected by Arizona law, which states that “parents may learn about the course of study for their children and review learning materials, including the source of any supplemental educational materials,” and “parents who object to any learning material or activity on the basis that it is harmful may withdraw their children from the activity or from the class or program in which the material is used.”

“So, we had numerous meetings, requesting contact with the teacher, and she failed to reply, and then probably the principal got involved, and so we sat down with the principal — had a zoom call — with the principal and the teacher,” Shawn explained. “Then we had a call with the superintendent of the school district, and then the head of the curriculum department.”

“After a lot of work, we finally got it,” Amy said, explaining further that, as revealed by internal emails provided to Breitbart News, school administrators were attempting to “tone down” topic titles of the curriculum — not the curriculum itself — so as to not raise any “red flags,” as Amy put it.

“She basically told her to falsify it,” Amy said about K-12 Social Studies Curriculum Coach Jennifer Mundy after she encouraged other administrators to talk to Trentowski about her subject headings.

“[Trentowski’s] titles could be toned down a bit,” Mundy told school principal Rae Conelley in an email exchange. “For example, instead of saying ‘Science behind mob mentality,’ she could say ‘The science behind the KKK’s behavior’ or just put Tuesday’s title on Wednesday as well.”

But this was just one email in a chain provided to Breitbart News that appear to reveal PUSD administrators attempting to find ways around respecting the rights of parents.

In a string of January 31 messages, of which the aforementioned was a part, Conelley appears to be attempting to change Trentowski’s chosen class plan, saying to Trentowski in part:

I am going to need your help with this one. The title of your topics are causing some of the issues with the Souza’s[sic] and the parents in their camp. I am referencing the old curriculum and I can see Plessy v. Ferguson is included and I an explain that to them. The science behind Mob Mentality is a harder one to defend. [Emphasis added].

I am trying to keep you out of these meetings with the Souza’s[sic] but need your help. I need to know where you are going with this and how they can feel comfortable with what you are teaching. [Emphasis added].

Apparently frustrated and seeking guidance, but also lamenting the fact that she has to spend time dealing with parents, Conelley sends this message to Mundy and another administrator: “I am going to lose my mind. … If I am off track in my guidance with [Trentowski] please let me know. I almost feel like she’s baiting [the Souzas] now but I’m the one who’s spending time I don’t have meeting with them.” [Emphasis added].

Conelley continued in another message to the same recipients, saying in part, “Now I have to spend time defending what [Trentowski] is teaching. I feel like she didn’t take much to heart after our last discussion. I am not in favor of censorship or tying teacher’s hands, but continuing this terminology is not helping this horrible situation.”

Seeking recourse, the Souzas’ Statement of Allegations to the Arizona Department of Education claims Trentowski’s conduct would “discredit the teaching profession.” The statement also names Conelley and Mundy.

Moreover, Mundy, who is charged with helping craft social studies curriculum in PUSD, appears to be a political actor as well.

In an unrelated email chain obtained through a records request and provided to Breitbart News, Mundy appears to be on a search for new source materials for curriculums, finding credibility in the widely debunked New York Times “1619 Project,” while trying to discredit its historical counter, “1776 Unites”: “It seems to me the 1619 Project is accurate and brings to light things that many people would prefer to remain ‘hidden.’ However, 1776 Unites showcases the contributions and excellence of African Americans through history.”

Referencing reviews of “1776 Unites,” Mundy said, “Most of those opinions reference the indoctrination of America’s youth by liberals. I’ve come to associate that claim with, ‘Let’s just keep teaching history the way it’s always been taught — from a white European perspective.’ But that reaction to the word indoctrination may be my own bias…”

After grappling with this issue, however, Mundy appears to overtly endorse political activism in education to the recipient of the email:

You said … if you are truly an anti-racist and you truly support diversity, inclusion, and equity for all in this country, you are going to make enemies. And if you’re not willing to make people angry and risk losing their friendship, support, etc., then you really have to question whether you support diversity, inclusion, and equity at all. … The answer for me is yes, I am willing to lose. [Emphasis added].

Furthermore, responding to an email that included potential source material, Grundy replied that she is “familiar with the Zinn Education Project,” which promotes communist Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which has also been widely debunked, and that she will “definitely check … out” “Black Lives Matter at School Curriculum.”

PUSD did not respond to a request for comment from Breitbart News.

While the Souzas have already pulled their daughter out of PUSD, they told Breitbart News that they wish to make an example of what happened to their daughter by trying to set precedent for other parents in their state by standing up to a public school district, but also spread awareness across the country that parents may not know the full scope of rights they have in their state.

“Not every state has a parental Bill of Rights when it comes to education, but how many parents out there even understand that their state may have that?” Shawn told Breitbart News. “Because, as parents, we have one shot of getting this right, and our kids have one chance in education. And parents are so busy nowadays, that a lot of times this falls by the wayside. And if we can wake people up and allow them to understand that they have more say in their kids’ education than they think, it will be well worth it.”

“We’re not looking for repercussions,” Shawn continued. “We just want to wake folks up and let them know it’s okay to stand up to the district because it has become so common to be belittled and attacked if you rock the boat — and we want to show them it’s okay to do that.”

Amy added that “this isn’t political. It’s not racial. This is parents. This is our right to protect our children, which is our only job in this whole world is to make our kids are okay. So, that’s basically what our goal is, is to help other parents to realize it’s not that bad. We’ve really had very little negative feedback because, whether you’re Democrat or Republican, or neither, you can still agree that if they violate your rights, then you have to do something about it.”

“By shining a light on this incident with their complaint, Amy and Shawn are setting an example for other parents in Arizona and around the country as they pursue a quality education for their children free of activism,” Alleigh Marré, president of education advocacy group Free to Learn said of the Souzas’ experience. “If parents work within the parameters of the school and follow all the rules, they should see results. Instead, what we saw in Peoria was deceit and an intentional push to keep parents in the dark. At Free to Learn, we want to empower these parents and give them a platform to advocate for their children when all else fails.”

.

Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.