by Nicole Carr [This article first appeared in ProPublica, republished with permission]
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Series: A Closer Look
Examine the news
Cecelia Lewis did not want to share her story.
In fact, she just wanted it all to go away.
Late last year, I was on the phone with a former colleague, talking about local coverage of campaigns against critical race theory in the Atlanta metro area. CRT argues that racial bias is embedded in American laws and institutions and has caused disproportionate harm to people of color; it’s rarely taught in public K-12 schools, but it’s still become a lightning rod in districts across the country — and a catalyst for conservative political candidates looking to energize their base.
He mentioned that a woman quit her job at the Cherokee County School District before she started and wondered what happened to her.
We talked about a lengthy statement she wrote for the Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News, explaining her decision to quit. The letter was released a week and a half after an ugly scene at a school board meeting in which parents railed against the hiring of Lewis (a middle school principal from Maryland), as well as against the diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives (which Lewis had been brought to the helm) and CRT (a once obscure, now politicized concept that Lewis hadn’t even heard of). I learned later that the people who had gathered outside the building where the meeting was taking place were knocking on the windows. School police and other law enforcement officers escorted council members to their homes, where some were given continued security.
In that letter, Lewis, who had resigned the day after the meeting, explained the DEI plan she would have implemented in Cherokee and how it would benefit all children. And she mentioned that she’s been threatened by people who have no idea who she is or what she stands for.
It sounded like something worth reporting in more depth.
A comment posted at the bottom of an article in the Cobb County Courier caught my eye: A reader, who did not reveal his identity, warned that Lewis was heading to the neighboring Cobb County school district of Cherokee.
Sure enough, Lewis’ LinkedIn profile showed she had worked in Cobb County for just two months after her resignation to Cherokee. She had supervised social studies for this district. No one had reported what had happened to him to Cobb.
At the same time, I had filed Open Records Requests with the Cobb County School District regarding COVID-19. I noticed a cache of emails that showed how the then school board president was getting advice from a local lawyer about the CRT’s conservative definition, its supposed dangers to children, and how the concept was infiltrating businesses and schools.
The school board — like many others across the country in 2021 — had voted against CRT. The vote took place the same month that Lewis began working on it.
I wanted to know exactly what happened to Lewis in the two districts and how it happened. I also wanted to know who was behind the how.
I started reaching out to Lewis via LinkedIn in December, shortly after talking to my former colleague and trying to connect what little I knew of her brief stay in Georgia. She did not answer. But I had some hope of hearing from her because I got alerts that she was at least looking at my LinkedIn profile.
She’s thinking, I thought.
Earlier this year, I found his email address and followed up. Still no answer.
I continued to file requests for records in both school districts, and through the emails I received from those requests, I learned more about the players behind the campaign to oust him. In Cobb and Cherokee, people had sent similarly worded complaints to the districts, demanding to get rid of Lewis.
Then I found people who were upset about what had happened to Lewis. One of them knew a little more about what had led up to that horrible school board meeting in Cherokee.
This person had a recording of an organizational meeting a few days earlier at a golf course clubhouse. There was also a private Facebook group filled with hysterical posts about Lewis, some of which advertised fake “sightings” of Lewis in the county.
Two of the presenters at the clubhouse meeting are leaders of groups who encourage the public to anonymously report educators for perceived curriculum-related transgressions, inappropriate books or lessons, or guest speakers — or simply submit a tip anonymous.
In addition to giving me details of efforts to oust Lewis, the recording and publications provided insight into local and national conservative networks involved in strategies to overthrow school boards, vilify parent-teacher associations and to enact state legislation to prohibit a multitude of program concepts. At the clubhouse meeting, the crowd watched a Prager University video that explained how white people are treated as racists no matter what they say or do — because, well, CRT. They also listened to a controversial recording of a Manhattan high school principal filmed speaking about the demonization of white children. The group was coached on how to speak at school board meetings in a way that could land them an appearance on Fox News.
It all seemed very coordinated to me.
In March, I decided to see if meeting could change Lewis’ mind about the conversation. I knew she was back in Maryland, so I went there to go door-to-door the old-fashioned way, meet people who knew Lewis, and send her a direct handwritten message (my business cards ProPublica had not yet been printed!).
As I was sitting in my hotel room, she called.
She still didn’t want to be recorded, but we talked for hours that day and hours the next. I told her why I wanted to tell her story, and she started to piece it together for me. I learned that she did not even initially apply for this DEI position. The Cherokee District administration encouraged her to do so after she interviewed for a job as a teacher coach. But Lewis still refused to be recorded, and she wasn’t too interested in meeting me. She had issues. Security and privacy issues.
My ears perked up when, on our first call, she mentioned an upcoming school board meeting in her own district. I decided to go sit in the back, to get a feel for the area. I heard some of the same anti-CRT lines in Maryland that I had heard in Georgia. This time, it tied into the district’s hiring of its first black superintendent.
Again, the wording suggested there was coordination. People don’t learn these things on their own. They’re driven the same way I heard in that recording of the Cherokee County clubhouse reunion.
I left Maryland without an interview I could use in my story. But I kept reporting.
I have received more emails from districts in Georgia. I spoke to school employees in Cherokee and Cobb counties; they stood up for Lewis and felt sorry that these things happened to him. Most of them said they often thought of her. One of them, who was disappointed that I tried to visit Lewis, thinking it was too far, was especially protective of her. She didn’t want me to hurt her any more, and I had no interest in doing so.
I also attended a Cherokee County School Board meeting, standing in a long line to get through the metal detectors that had been installed because of the uproar on Lewis and CRT a year earlier. In this line, the women circulated what they called evidence of obscene material in the books of the school library. An informal circle of people formed around me. Some knew each other. Some showed up knowing they shared a common goal in banning the books. One woman said a leading parent was a “Marjorie”, as in a follower of controversial Georgia MP Marjorie Taylor Greene, who isn’t afraid to say anything, anywhere. Another raised her hand and said proudly, “I’m a Marjorie too.”
Everyone in my immediate vicinity was going without the materials provided by a blonde woman: laminated pages of books she says should be banned from school libraries. Well, almost everyone. No one gave them to me. No one handed them to the black mother standing behind me with her high school daughter either.
As I continued to report in the weeks to come, it became clear that none of the backlash Cecelia Lewis faced in Georgia was actually about Cecelia Lewis. She found herself at the wrong job in the wrong state at the wrong time. And yes, from the details you will find in the story I finally wrote, the wrong skin color.
(In response to a detailed list of questions covering all aspects of Lewis’ experience in the Cherokee County School District, his director of communications replied that “we have no further comments to add.” response to similar questions to the Cobb County School District and its school board, a spokesperson replied, “Cecelia Lewis was employed by the Cobb County School District during the summer of 2021, voluntarily submitted her resignation letter in early fall 2021 and, like every member of the team, his contributions and work for the students was greatly appreciated.”)
At the end of April, Lewis agreed to take another call from me, this time via Zoom, where we got to see each other for the first time. At that time, we were approaching the anniversary year of his resignation from Cherokee County. When I told him what I had learned through recordings and interviews — and how my colleague, ProPublica research journalist Mollie Simon, had found examples of educators across the country who had experienced similar reactions — she said she would consult with her family, district and pastor and pray to decide if she will speak to me publicly.
A few days later, my phone popped up with a call from her. She wanted to share her experience — so it might help people understand the extraordinary challenges that so many educators face.