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Idaho’s Teacher of the Year Winner Leaving State Following Right-Wing Harassment

The educator was attacked for discussing world cultures and for recognizing the existence of the United Nations.

Last year’s Idaho Teacher of the Year winner was harassed so frequently by right-wing parents and community members that she has decided to leave the state to pursue a different career.

The news comes as harassment of teachers is becoming alarmingly commonplace in school districts across the country, with far right conservatives waging aggressive attacks on schools, teachers and administrators whose lessons and policies don’t align with Christian nationalist ideology.

Karen Lauritzen, a fourth-grade teacher with over two decades of experience, was named the 2023 Idaho Teacher of the Year last September by a GOP-run office, receiving accolades from then-state superintendent of public instruction Sherri Ybarra.

“Karen’s talents go beyond a mastery of teaching,” Ybarra said at the time. “She has created tremendous connections with her students and the wider school community, and she excels in the art of building classroom relationships that involve not only her students but also their educational network, from parents to peers.”

As a result of the award, Lauritzen became the target of unwanted scrutiny from far right parents in the district and conservative activists in the state, who dug up social media posts in which she expressed support for LGBTQ people and the Movement for Black Lives.

Days after Lauritzen was announced the winner, conservative news outlets in the state accused her of being a “left-wing activist.” The outlets provided zero evidence that she had expressed her beliefs in the classroom — indeed, discussion of sexuality was already banned in her district at the grade level she taught. Nevertheless, the reports led parents to question Lauritzen’s teaching ability.

“I should have felt celebrated and should have felt like this is a great year, and honestly it was one of the toughest years I have ever had teaching, not only with my community but with parents questioning every decision I made as well,” Lauritzen told The Boston Globe. “Even after 21 years of teaching, my professional judgment was called into question more this year than it ever has in the past.”

In addition to questioning her views on LGBTQ rights and racial equality, parents derided Lauritzen for teaching kids about cultures around the world and for discussing the existence of the United Nations.

“When it’s, ‘My kid can’t do this because it’s propaganda,’ and ‘My kid can’t do that because we don’t believe in United Nations,’ it’s like, what? It’s not Santa Claus, what do you mean you don’t believe in it?” Lauritzen recalled.

Right-wing activists began emailing the school to harass Lauritzen directly, prompting her to call it quits with the district before the end of last year. She is now planning to move to Illinois, where she will take a position at the university level.

Lauritzen maintains that the only fault parents could find with her was that she expressed her beliefs in a forum outside of the classroom.

“Even if I have certain beliefs myself, that does not mean that I teach kids. It’s not my job to ‘indoctrinate’ or make kids little versions of myself,” she explained. “It’s to make kids into the best versions of themselves.”

Lauritzen isn’t the only teacher who faced intense scrutiny after winning a Teacher of the Year award, The Boston Globe reported. The year prior to Lauritzen’s win, the recipient of the honor in Kentucky faced harassment for being openly gay.

Willie Carver — who applied for the honor after a student joked he could never be selected because of his identity — soon found himself on the receiving end of vitriol from right-wingers in the state, who wrongly cited his sexuality as evidence that he was indoctrinating kids.

The “breaking point,” Carver said in a separate interview, was when a parent decided to constantly harass him at school board meetings, wrongly claiming he was “grooming” children because he was the adviser to a student-led group that was LGBTQ-affirming. The parent also attacked students within the group for creating it in the first place.

Carver was so worried about his current and former students that he decided to leave the high school teaching position he had served in for over a decade and take a job at the University of Kentucky.

Beyond being targeted by bigoted parents, Carver noted at a hearing before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in May 2022 that the district seemed ambivalent toward his accomplishments and the way he had been mistreated by the community.

“I’m from Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, and met the President of the United States. My school didn’t even mention it in an email,” he said.

Carver also elaborated on disturbing developments educators have been forced to contend with across the country, saying:

This invisibility extends to all newly politicized identities. Our administrators’ new directive is ‘nothing racial.’ Parents now demand alternative work when authors are black or LGBTQ. We are told to accommodate them, but I can’t ethically erase Black or queer voices.

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