Parental rights groups on the rise in Berrien County
BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich.-- From book bans to board elections, "parental rights" groups like "We the Parents" have been making their presence known throughout Michiana, even influencing some school board elections.
It's raising many questions about what these groups are all about.
Here on ABC57, we report more and more on school board meetings, as they become hotbeds for social discourse and culture wars.
The latest example was at Brandywine, where a series of committees, including an explicit book review and parental curriculum advisory, were created.
"We want to talk about best interests of our children," Renee Peddie said at Monday's school board meeting at Brandywine High School.
Across the nation, parental rights groups are making themselves known in school board meetings, fighting for more of a say over what happens in their classrooms and what kind of reading material students get.
"The best interest of our children is to protect them from explicit content, and I cannot believe that in education, this is a conversation that we have to have," Peddie said.
Groups like "We the Parents," which Peddie is a part of, have developed a presence in Berrien County.
"'We the parents' seeks to empower parents back to what Michigan constitution states parents have the fundamental right to guide the education of their students," she said.
It's not uncommon that topics like book bans or sex education create fierce debate, with some in opposition calling groups like "We the Parents" extreme, agenda-driven, and perhaps in some cases, bigoted.
ABC57 spoke with the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, Don Wotruba, who said he advises board members, to keep politics out of it, and hear these parents out.
"Now we're seeing these parent groups that really are tied to national organizations," he said.
Wotruba said these groups became common during the pandemic when parents wanted to make their voices heard about student mask requirements and other COVID-19 guidelines.
"The issues have moved to other topics beyond the pandemic, but I think we now see more organized efforts," he said.
He said a big strategy for these groups is to pack school boards to make their point.
"They are impacting boards being able to do the business of a district in a timely manner," he said.
He said he worries it could drive teachers away.
"That's my biggest fear," he said. "The rhetoric is so heightened right now that we are negatively impacting the people in our classroom teaching our kids."
But overall, Wotruba said parents in the district are the constituents of a school board, and their concerns deserve to be given meaningful attention.
"They have a set in their community that has concerns. We have to figure out how to listen," he said. "But at the same time, a vocal group at a board meeting may not represent what the community thinks, and the board has to take that into consideration as well."
"We have to watch out for the best interest of our children. And we are divided-- clearly-- we are divided," Peddie said. "But what that means, is that means finding common ground."
ABC57 reached out to organizers of "We the Parents" Berrien County for an interview today, hoping to learn more about the group, its origin, and its mission.
They declined but said they would give a written statement, which ABC57 has not received yet.