Utah’s state school board distanced itself Thursday from a member after she attacked a teacher on social media — publicly posting the teacher’s name, the school where she works and accusing her, without offering evidence, of instructing students that “communism is better than our form of government.”
Board member Natalie Cline also encouraged her followers to share the information and urged them to “take action” against the middle school English teacher. Several responded by calling on social media for the teacher to be fired for indoctrinating kids and urging the teacher to leave the country.
Some also sent the teacher threats via direct messages, according to the Jordan School District, which also said Cline’s allegations about her are not true.
Cline removed the teacher’s name after some commenters raised concerns about the public reactions, but she did not take down the original comments. At that point, the posts — which appeared Monday on both Cline’s personal Facebook page and on a public page for conservative Utah parents — had already been shared hundreds of times.
“Just trying to stop the indoctrination, protect the kids in the class, and warn parents what is going on,” Cline wrote in defense of her posts.
In a statement, state school board board Chair Mark Huntsman and Vice Chairs Laura Belnap and Cindy Davis acknowledged the concerns about the “content and nature” of Cline’s remarks and said they “do not reflect nor should be construed as the board’s position on any matter.”
Cline, a firebrand far-right Republican, took her seat in January on the Utah State Board of Education, a 15-member body overseeing Utah’s public K-12 schools.
Even though she is an elected official, Cline is allowed to make comments “as a private citizen,” the board leaders said. But her posts — including messages from earlier this month — do not align with the board’s priorities, such as its votes to improve equity and denounce racism, as well as advocating for all teachers, their statement said.
The statement also refers to the possibility of taking formal action against Cline. That could include censuring her or removing her from committee assignments.
The three leaders wrote: “We will continue to work on board bylaws to ensure they include processes to redress recently raised concerns in a manner that will foster productive dialogue and prevent misunderstandings regarding the board and its positions.”
It’s an unusual response from the elected board, which rarely comments on matters outside its meetings. In at least in the last decade, board leaders had never issued such a statement about a single member.
And now they have done so twice just this month regarding Cline, after she previously came under fire at the start of February for her social media posts about the LGBTQ community and on education about race.
Cline did not respond to messages from The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday regarding her most recent posts.
In them, she alleges that a ninth grade teacher in Riverton taught students about how communism is the best form of government and had them read The 1619 Project. That ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine is about the beginning of American slavery and how it drove this country’s founders.
Several other conservative leaders nationwide have pushed back against that material being taught in the classroom, including a move by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, to ban it and deny funds to schools that don’t comply.
Cline echoed those individuals, saying in her post about the Utah teacher: “The unit they are in right now is Social Justice. They have discussed gender issues, prejudice in law enforcement, privilege and marginalization, the plight of ‘undocumented citizens’ and many other volatile issues. She had never taught an alternative point of view other than left-leaning material. This is unacceptable and full-blown indoctrination.”
Many commenters supported Cline and openly criticized the teacher and her supposed lesson plans. One man called for a war to take America back from “people like this.” That was later deleted. Others insisted the teacher needed to be fired immediately. “Thanks for exposing this evil,” one person added.
Cline also encouraged in the comments for her supporters to submit public records requests for “all of her [the teacher’s] lesson plans, power points, etc.”
Then, a few who said they have kids in the teacher’s class began commenting that the post was not accurate. “My daughter is in this class and very upset by how this situation is being portrayed. She can’t believe this is what is being said,” one woman wrote. Another added that she talked to several students there, and they also said the post was “nonsense” and not what happened.
“Fact check before publicly lynching a teacher,” one parent wrote.
Cline insisted in a response that it is “not hearsay.” And she said she heard it directly from a student, herself. But she acknowledged, “Point taken. Not trying to get the teacher fired” before removing her name.
Officials in the Jordan School District, which includes the school where the teacher works at and is included in the area that Cline represents in her seat, have been discussing the posts with the state school board and what actions it might take.
District spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf told The Tribune on Thursday that Cline’s remarks include “many inaccuracies.” She said the district has reached out to Cline to refute those, but the board member has not responded any of its messages.
Riesgraf said: “The teacher did not say that communism is the best form of government.”
She also said the teacher did not stray from the curriculum approved by the state. She added, “She was following what the state core says.”
Darrell Robinson, a member of Jordan School District’s board of education, also responded in the comments on Cline’s posts, asking for more information about the allegations. “The teacher has the right to be innocent until proven guilty,” he added.
Robinson suggested that a previous board member who held the seat, Lisa Cummins, who was also known for being an outspoken conservative, always agreed to sit down and talk with the district when controversies arose.
“The way this school board member regularly puts teachers on blast on social media is nothing short of targeted harassment,” added Kat Martinez, a member of the Murray City Council, on social media. “She’s on the school board — if she wants to make changes to curriculum & permissible content she needs to do it through policy.”
Cline was elected in November in the first partisan school board elections in the state. She won 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.
Her platform was largely about protecting the “natural family,” which she defines as a mother and father — not an LGBTQ partnership. And though she made similar comments during her campaign and the debates, she faced criticism at the start of February for her social media posts about the LGBTQ community and on education about race. Some teachers and parents started a petition calling for her removal.
The leadership of the Utah Board of Education said then that they have “no legal authority” to remove a member from office. As elected officials, they said, school board members can only be removed by impeachment.