Some Utah parents and teachers are calling for the removal of a conservative state school board member for posting comments they consider racist, homophobic and uninformed.
In one of the Facebook posts they point to, Natalie Cline calls LGBTQ students “gender-confused.” In another, she says educators were learning how to “indoctrinate your children” at a conference this month at the Utah Pride Center about accepting all identities in the classroom.
She also referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as “indoctrination.” And she suggests that schools are teaching race theory that tells white students they are all biased and always “wrong.” In a comment on Jan. 4, Cline added, “We cannot let it in. Not an inch.”
Upset community members have started an online petition to oust Cline from her position influencing policies for K-12 education. After launching Sunday morning, it now has more than 4,000 signatures.
“Remove her so parents will know that their child is safe and accepted in all public Utah schools,” the petition says, encouraging supporters to write in to the Utah State Board of Education and to state lawmakers.
Since then, the Utah Pride Center, Equality Utah, the Black Lives Matter chapter for the state, and the NAACP branch for Salt Lake City have all spoken out against Cline’s remarks.
Cline, a far-right Republican and registered nurse who was elected in November in the first partisan school board elections in the state, took her seat on Jan. 6 and has been in office for less than a month. Her campaign included similar comments.
She did not return messages from The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday. But she later posted on her Facebook page that she was “the latest target of the mob.”
Cline said her followers should also write to the school board to defend her and their shared beliefs.
“Let them know that parents want neutral academics taught in class, not social engineering and indoctrination. Let them know that because there is so very much controversy in society surrounding these very issues that that is all the more reason to leave the teaching of values, beliefs, and dispositions to the parents — not teachers,” she wrote.
The post concludes with her pleading them to tell the rest of the school board members “to back me up rather than catering to the mob” that wants her removed.
But the school board actually doesn’t have that power.
‘No legal authority’
The onslaught of messages from both sides led the Utah Board of Education’s leadership to issue a statement Monday — a rare step for the public body that includes 15 members. In it, they note that they have “no legal authority” to remove Cline from office.
Instead, board Chair Mark Huntsman and Vice Chairs Laura Belnap and Cindy Davis note that as elected officials, school board members can only be removed by impeachment.
That would require the Utah House to draw up articles against Cline and would require, by law, that she had committed “high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance in office.” None of those applies here. She would then have to be tried in the state Senate.
“That’s beyond our reach,” said the board’s spokesperson, Mark Peterson.
The state also does not have an election recall law. So there’s no process for voters to remove her that way.
The only other way Cline would lose her seat, the board leadership says, is through her “resignation of the seat before the fulfillment of a four year term, or through the regular election process when a board member’s term has ended.”
She won this November, though, with overwhelming support, beating out an unaffiliated candidate by a margin of 38 percentage points to represent District 11, which includes pieces of both Salt Lake County — primarily Sandy, South Jordan and Herriman — as well as part of western Utah County.
Peterson said it’s possible the issue comes up at the board’s Thursday meeting. There, the board can choose to censure Cline or vote to formally disapprove of her comments. That’s the most immediate action possible.
Until then, the leadership said: “We respect and encourage the involvement of our constituents statewide, including all of our valued stakeholders. We will continue to work hard to represent all of our respective communities, and we remain committed to our duties of providing strategic vision and direction for Utah’s education system, while enabling local flexibility and accountability.”
Posts about the LGBTQ community
Cline’s views on the LGBTQ community have caused a lot of the recent pushback — though it’s something that came up regularly during her campaign. In a public debate, Cline said she was running for state school board specifically to protect the “natural family,” which she defines as a mother and father — not an LGBTQ partnership. And it was also on her candidate website.
Her biography for the GOP convention noted, too, that she has lobbied for Family Watch International. That organization is identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for promoting “anti-LGBT pseudoscience that includes the falsehood that homosexuality is a mental disorder derived from childhood trauma, and that so-called ‘conversion therapy’ can effectively eliminate same-sex attraction.”
She’s continued to post on the topic on her public Facebook account, “Natalie J Cline - State School Board District 11,” since she was elected. And that’s where parents and teachers came across her remarks and what led them to create the petition.
Sandra, the educator who launched the campaign, is identified only by her first name on the petition. In an interview, she said she fears losing her job and asked for her surname to not be published.
She said she is worried about the effect Cline’s comments could have, in particular, on LGBT students. If Cline can’t be removed, she said, she would like to see the board order Cline undergo ethics training.
Last week, Cline posted about a conference held by the Utah Pride Center on Jan. 22 and 23, for teachers and students to talk about the best ways to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for those in the LGBTQ community.
“They are after your children’s hearts and minds,” Cline wrote. “This presentation will make you soul sick.”
In a later post, she also said attendees were told “how to fully indoctrinate your children into the LGBTQ ideology including important strategies and tactics to deal with parents who oppose!”
Utah Pride Center Executive Director Rob Moolman said that was not the purpose of the conference and challenged Cline’s characterization.
“Our goal is not to indoctrinate anyone, but to shed some light on the situation queer youth are experiencing at school, then allow educators, administrators and even elected officials the opportunity to make decisions based on that information,” he said.
Moolman added that there were workshops on suicide prevention, self-love, identity and how to include LGBTQ representation in the classroom, which can be just one book sitting on the shelf with a gay character. A teacher having a small rainbow flag or sticker, for instance, could also alert students that they’re in a safe space without anyone saying anything out loud, he said. Overall, the point is to help students achieve and feel like they can attend class, he added.
He said he feels Cline’s comments prove “why a place like the Pride Center still has to exist in Utah.”
“There’s a sense of disappointment that a Utah State Board of Education member espouses these positions,” he added.
Moolman provided records that show Cline, using the email address that appears on her state candidate filing form, registered to attend the conference.
The director said he doesn’t know how much of the event that she heard, but said he’s happy to talk to her one-on-one about anything she’d like to learn more about. He also sent Cline a letter Monday inviting her and the entire state school board to visit the Utah Pride Center. And he asked that Cline remove her social media posts until they can meet to discuss them.
“We believe that these comments are doing untold and unintended damage to queer youth and teachers in schools and in your district,” the letter notes.
Moolman is a former teacher who said when he taught he was “too scared to be out.” And it was worse when he was a student, he said, describing himself as the “little queer kid sitting in the classroom” with no one to talk to.
He said students can’t be told to leave their identity at the door. For many, a school is the only place they feel they can be themselves, he said.
Chris Jensen, the chair of the board over the Utah Pride Center, added: “Those scars when you’re a young queer kid and you hear this stuff from people who are above you and supposed to care, they inflict a lot of harm on you.”
Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, said state leaders — including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox — have talked openly about the need to be accepting of the LGBTQ community. And the state has worked over the past five years to get rid of discriminatory curriculum in schools, including the “no-promo homo” law where teachers were banned from mentioning positive LGBTQ relationships.
Cline, he said, “wants to take Utah back to the 1950s and no one is interested.”
Teaching about race
In one post, Cline includes photos that she said she was sent of a Provo classroom where the teacher has colorful art pinned to the walls. One is a rainbow illustration of the Statue of Liberty. Another says, “A woman’s place is in the revolution.”
Cline describes it as “propaganda everywhere.” And she focuses a one poster on the door that promises that the classroom will welcome, among others, “All cultures. All colors.” She uses it as a jumping off point to encourage parents to get involved in what is taught in the classroom. And what she says doesn’t belong: discussion on culture, ethnicity and race theory.
In a Jan. 4 post, Cline says teaching about race theory is “damaging.” On Jan. 5, she says it’s unfair because she believes all white students are being accused of having “conscious or unconscious biases.” She also shares in support a letter from the Utah Fraternal Order of Police that’s advocating against teachers wearing Black Lives Matter paraphernalia.
Cline later warns, too, against school districts hiring equity directors because they will only “search out racism, inequity, and exclusivity within the school” so they can keep their jobs. That, she says, “exacerbates the problem of racism in schools.” Instead, she proposes districts employing a “Unity Solutions Officer.”
Jeanetta Williams, the president of the Salt Lake City branch of the NAACP, challenged Cline’s view. Teaching about race, she said, is vital for students to learn about what has happened and what challenges still exist for people of color — including what prompted the protests across the United States last summer.
“If you go to learn history, you need to learn all of it,” Williams said.
She also said the state curriculum does not include telling students they are prejudiced. And she believes equity directors do crucial work in focusing on how districts can improve and help students of color, who are typically marginalized.
Williams urged Cline to use her platform with the state school board to help those efforts.
Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter chapter for Utah started its own campaign, urging members to call the board and join in with the petition for Cline’s removal.
“She is posting white supremacist rhetoric, as well as homophobic and transphobic rhetoric,” a post on the chapter’s Facebook page said.
Although the comment sections on Cline’s social media were flooded by people pushing back against her, several parents and teachers also jumped in to defend the school board member and her positions.
One woman wrote: “Thank you for this warning. I appreciate knowing about it.” Another said, “Sorry you are taking so much heat but you are needed.”
Joel Wright, a former conservative member of the Utah school board, added on Twitter: “Elections matter. Petitions don’t.”
In a later comment responding to her own Facebook post, Cline said she stands by her statements and posts.
“I will not give them any ground,” she wrote. “I have nothing to apologize for. This is a free country. We can have different beliefs and have a God given right to express those beliefs in the public square. That’s okay. What is not okay is trying to destroy other people simply because they believe differently and express those beliefs.