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Robert Gehrke: What should Utah do with this school board member with backward, harmful views?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It took less than a month for the Utah State Board of Education to have its own Marjorie Taylor Greene problem.

Greene is the Georgia congresswoman who is facing calls for expulsion or censure for trafficking in Trump electoral lies and deluded QAnon conspiracy theories — like questioning whether the Parkland, Fla., school massacre was staged and supporting the execution of prominent Democrats.

The school board’s smaller-scale version involves Natalie Cline, a backward-thinking ultra-conservative from District 11 who since being sworn in has fanned fears that the schools are training teachers to indoctrinate children on LGBTQ issues and disparaged acknowledgements of race and culture in the context of the classroom.

“They are after your children’s hearts and minds,” she said in a Facebook post about a Jan. 23 seminar sponsored by the Utah Pride Center designed to help teachers build gender inclusive classrooms. “This presentation will make you soul sick.”

Those comments and others about race and gender leftist conspiracies drew a warranted public backlash and even an effort to have her removed from office (more on that later).

“As the mother of a queer child, as a teacher of queer children, and the [gay-straight alliance] advisor at my school, I am not only appalled by your ignorance and very uneducated platform,” a woman named Karlyn Salazar responded to Cline’s post. “I’m disgusted that you even ran and more disgusted that you are actually on the board.”

Cline — as often is the case when someone says something outrageous — now claims she is a victim of the thought police.

“I am the latest target of the mob,” Cline wrote in a post Sunday night, urging her supporters to send emails to the board to “let them know that parents want neutral academics taught in class, not social engineering and indoctrination.”

By Monday afternoon, school board members had received scores, perhaps hundreds of emails and an estimated 90% of them are in support of Cline, apparently part of a coordinated effort.

Cline’s attempt to obfuscate the issue with “cancel culture” claims misses the larger point: This isn’t about indoctrination, it’s about the basic welfare of children across the state who deserve to learn in an atmosphere where they are welcomed, valued and nurtured.

We wouldn’t abide by teachers disparaging their students. We wouldn’t abide teachers spreading allegations that the school system, by nature of its inclusiveness, is attempting to indoctrinate children. And we shouldn’t abide by it when those sentiments are spread by those who set the policies.

Her statements are wrong, they are out of touch with science, they are woefully ignorant of the importance of training teachers to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of LGBTQ students and harmful to efforts to stem suicide in their community. They deserve to be condemned.

But these are the views the Cline ran on when she campaigned to represent District 11, a Republican stronghold in the southwest end of Salt Lake County and western portion of Utah County.

During her campaign, she touted her involvement in ultra-conservative groups — like Family Watch International, designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — that believes same-sex attraction is a mental disorder and supports conversion therapy.

And she won the Republican nomination and went on to be elected by a wide margin, beating a much more moderate independent opponent.

It’s fair to assume that a large percentage of the people who voted for her didn’t know they were casting their ballot for a school board member straight out of the 1950s, they just voted for the Republican nominee — and that points to the problem with the Legislature’s decision to make school board races partisan contests.

Be that as it may, she was elected and, frankly, her views are probably supported by a huge swath of her constituents. So the question becomes: What to do about these dated and damaging views?

The petition to have Cline removed simply won’t work. As an elected official, she can’t be fired, she would have to be impeached by the board and, under Utah law, that would require proof of “high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance in office.”

We simply don’t have that high bar of official misconduct.

So expelling Cline, as the board leaders noted in a statement Monday, is not an option. Nonetheless, it behooves the board to take a clear stand in opposition to her statements. A censure motion may be a possibility — although an unlikely one, given the school board’s cautions and conservative makeup. It’s also always a risky proposition when there is a formal action aimed at muzzling fringe viewpoints.

But the board can distance itself from Cline’s views in other ways, either by taking up a resolution condemning the sentiments as antithetical to the school board’s mission to provide a public education for all of the children of the state and its responsibility under the law.

At a minimum, the board should reiterate the stance it took Jan. 6, when the members voted to condemn racism and embrace equality and expand the focus — treating others with respect, giving students a safe place to thrive, and creating a climate of hope and inclusion — to include LGBTQ students, as well.

While it will ultimately be up to the voters of District 11 to decide if Cline keeps her post when she is up for reelection, there’s no reason for the board to sit idly by while one of its members espouses positions that are damaging to the state’s education system and harmful to the children our educators strive to teach.

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