Utah school board condemns member Natalie Cline’s claim that schools are ‘complicit’ in sex trafficking and brainwashing

The latest rebuke from board leaders marks the third time they have spoken out against Cline’s online comments. At least one complaint has also been filed.

(USBE) Utah State Board of Education member Natalie Cline.

Utah’s state school board distanced itself — again — from one of its most outspoken members Thursday, condemning her latest accusation on social media that schools are “complicit in the grooming of children for sex trafficking.”

In a sharp rebuke, leadership of the Utah State Board of Education said it “strongly disapproves” of the recent Facebook post from far-right firebrand Natalie Cline that also accused educators of “brainwashing” students.

“Such an allegation against schools generally is inflammatory, divisive and unfair to Utah’s teachers, who put Utah’s students first every day, and interfere[s] with efforts to provide thoughtful solutions to difficult issues,” wrote the board’s three leaders, Jim Moss, Molly Hart and Jennie Earl.

They don’t directly name Cline in their statement, though it’s clear to whom they are referring. Cline has consistently attracted controversy since she took her seat a little more than two years ago on the 15-member board overseeing public K-12 education in the state.

This now marks the third time that the board has formally spoken out about her online rhetoric, with each statement echoing the same concerns. And KSL NewsRadio reported Thursday that Cline is also being investigated for comments she made during a public presentation last month about a school board staff member’s gender identity; the station reports that’s one of 87 complaints made against Cline in the past two years.

The Salt Lake Tribune has filed a public records request for those.

In her July 4 post, Cline wrote publicly on her Facebook page that not only are schools “complicit” in the sex trafficking of kids, they are also “aiding and abetting this evil practice by giving kids easy access to explicit, unnatural, and twisted sexual content and brainwashing them into queer, gender bending ideologies.”

Part of that is a reference to the books about the LGBTQ+ community that she and members of prominent parent groups in Utah have tried to get removed from school libraries for containing material they find inappropriate.

(Screenshot) Pictured is the post that Utah school board member Natalie Cline made on July 4, 2023.

At the end of her post, Cline included a review of and a photo from the new movie “Sound of Freedom,” which has been celebrated in conservative circles for telling the story of Tim Ballard, who investigated cases of pedophilia as an agent for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Ballard then started the anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad, though it was reported by Vice on Thursday that he was stepping down from that.

Cline didn’t respond to requests for comment about the post from The Tribune on Thursday.

Previously, in September 2021, board members voted to censure Cline for a social media post critical of LGBTQ students that led some of her followers to threaten violence. And before that, the board issued a statement about Cline’s unfounded allegations of teachers indoctrinating students with lessons about communism. She’s also drawn fire for criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cline’s latest post has been widely shared across online platforms by teachers upset at her claims.

And at least one complaint was filed to the Utah State Board of Education about it, a spokesperson there confirmed earlier this week. It appears, though, that there have been multiple.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, wrote on Twitter that she filed a complaint.

The Tribune also contacted a teacher who wrote on Twitter that he had filed a complaint about Cline’s post. The newspaper independently verified that the teacher is employed by Alpine School District. And the teacher provided the receipt from the Utah State Board of Education confirming his complaint was received.

The Tribune has agreed not to name the teacher, who also submitted his report anonymously, as he fears retaliation by Cline.

He pointed to Cline previously sharing the name of a middle school English teacher in a public post from February 2021, where Cline accused the woman of instructing students that “communism is better than our form of government.” Cline also encouraged her followers to share the information and urged them to “take action” against the teacher.

Several responded by calling on social media for the teacher to be fired 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 at the time that Cline’s allegations about the educator were not true.

(Screenshot) Pictured is a post from Utah State Board of Education member Natalie Cline, attacking a teacher in Jordan School District. Cline originally included the teacher's name but later removed it after facing pushback. The school district has said the allegations are not true.

The teacher who filed the complaint this weekend about Cline’s “grooming” post said he’s tired of seeing Cline attack students and his profession.

He said: “Her disgusting words have gone far enough. It’s time for some accountability (whatever that looks like).”

Board members are allowed to express their thoughts freely as private citizens, which Kelsey James, the spokesperson for the Utah State Board of Education, reiterated in an email to The Tribune. But in posts on social media, members are required to include a note that their opinions do not represent the views of the full board.

After she was first called out by the board in February 2021 for her social media posts — just a month into her term — Cline began doing that. On her July 4 post, she included the phrase “not an official USBE Board position” at the start.

James said: “Member Cline did add a disclaimer to her post that it is not official USBE position and as a private citizen, she does retain freedom of speech rights to express her opinions, even if they may be controversial.”

The teacher who filed the complaint about it, though, said he would like to see ethical standards for elected leaders. Without any, he said, it empowers Cline and gives her “a gigantic megaphone to attack minority communities and accuse educators of horrific crimes.”

He added: “She’s a state school board member with a large audience and people who take her seriously. … In my personal opinion, the First Amendment shouldn’t mean that elected officials, like Cline, can say whatever dishonest and inflammatory thing they want on social media, throw due process to the wind, bring death threats to educators, and wreck havoc on the school system without any accountability.”

Other teachers and parents also criticized Cline’s post on Twitter. One suggested that Cline should go to her local children’s justice center to get a real view of what child abuse looks like — and to learn how many cases are actually reported by teachers and schools.

Another wrote that Cline’s post “reflects poorly on the entire state board” and called for the board to take action.

Sarah Reale, who serves on the state school board, joined in the discussion and wrote that Cline’s opinions “do not represent the full board” and encouraged anyone with concerns about any member of the board to file a complaint.

That can be done online on the board’s website, by calling 801-538-7813 or by emailing audit@schools.utah.gov.

Those complaints are taken “seriously,” said James, the spokesperson for the board, and go through a review process outlined in policy. But leadership is limited on how it can react.

The board’s leaders have previously said that they have “no legal authority” to remove a member from office because she was elected by voters. As elected officials, they said, school board members can only be removed by impeachment.

The only formal action the board can take is to censure Cline, which it previously did in fall 2021 — marking the first time state school board leadership has ever reprimanded a member.

Cline won her seat in November 2020, the first partisan elections for the board, by a margin of 38 percentage points. Terms on the board are for four years, meaning she isn’t up for reelection until fall 2024.