Since 2020, the Burlington School District has hosted a series of online workshops focused on equity, covering topics like anti-racism, ableism and restorative practices.

The monthly webinars are intended to “highlight inequities and disparities” and “create public forums for open dialogue as community problem-solvers,” Autumn Bangoura, the equity instructional leader at the Burlington School District, said in a press release announcing this school year’s schedule.

But this week, school administrators found that it wasn’t just Burlingtonians who were watching.

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On April 6, conservative Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham played a series of clips from one of those workshops — unleashing a wave of disturbing messages aimed at the Burlington School District, the superintendent said.

“In the past 24 hours, BSD staff and members of the LGBTQIA+ community have received hateful, harmful, and discriminatory messages from people across the country,” Burlington School Superintendent Tom Flanagan wrote to community members in an April 7 email.

School officials contacted the Burlington Police Department to “ensure our staff and community are safe and protected,” Flanagan wrote.

The incident highlights the renewed focus of conservative media and politicians on equity efforts in schools — and the potential consequences for local school districts.

In her April 6 Fox News show, “The Ingraham Angle,” the commentator claimed that middle school students are “bombarded by efforts to undo any semblance of traditional values that their parents might have taught them,” then played a clip of a workshop hosted by the Burlington School District.

That webinar, titled “Let’s Talk About Gender Identity and Expression,” took place on Feb. 8 and featured Edmunds Middle School Assistant Principal Nikki Ellis speaking about their experiences as a trans non-binary person.

In an email, Ellis said they received messages about “my physical appearance, speculation that I am a pedophile for being transgender, and commentary about the status of my mental health” after the segment aired.

“Some messages have even demanded that I be imprisoned or fired because of my identity as a transgender non-binary school leader,” they said.

School officials have since taken down the video of that event. But according to the district’s webpage, participants discussed, among other topics, the question, “How can we support transgender and non-binary youth in our schools and our community?”

Ingraham painted such efforts as predatory. The segment, a clip of which was titled “Ingraham: They’re going after the kids,” included a caption reading “Doom & Groom.”

Conservative media and politicians have recently adopted the term “grooming” — with its overtones of pedophilia and child abuse — to attack LGBTQ+ advocates and figures on the political left.

That rhetoric is “some massive dog whistling,” said Dana Kaplan, executive director of Outright Vermont, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ youth. “It’s playing into stereotypes and just outright lies about a quote-unquote ‘queer agenda.’”

Events like Burlington’s are an important means of creating a safe environment for LGBTQ+ students, Kaplan and Ellis said.

“When you’re a queer kid, and society is trying to erase you, adulthood can feel far away,” Ellis said. “With visibility comes conversation, understanding and acceptance.”

Flanagan, the Burlington superintendent, said the district had likely received over 20 messages after the segment. There were no direct threats to the district, he said, but school officials are forwarding the messages to the Burlington Police Department.

It’s not the first time the district has found itself on the front lines of the culture wars. After a drag ball-themed halftime show at a Burlington High School football game received national media coverage, Flanagan said, the district also received a flood of angry messages.

School officials plan to continue hosting the monthly workshops, which are optional for students and residents, but are considering whether or not to film them in the future.

“It’s just important for me that our LGBTQ+ community knows that we care about them and that we are here for them, and that we are a space that is striving earnestly to be a place where everyone feels they belong,” Flanagan said.

The reaction to the workshop “shows why we need to have the conversations,” he added.

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