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Kids expelled after parents question changes within an Ohio private school
Andrea Gross and Amy Gonzales believe their kids were punished to intimidate other parents from speaking out against schools.
An Ohio private school is denying reenrollment to several students, alleging that their mothers breached part of their contract by leading a public campaign against the school’s purported attempt to “indoctrinate” students with left-wing ideas.
The decision capped off months of efforts by parents Andrea Gross and Amy Gonzalez to probe Columbus Academy’s (CA) activities, which allegedly included divisive concepts about race and anti-conservative sentiment.
Fox News has obtained copies of the school’s letters notifying Gross and Gonzalez, who lead the Pro-CA Coalition, of the decision. The school, which includes pre-K through 12th grade students, effectively expelled two of Gross’ children and one of Gonzalez’s. According to the moms, their coalition includes hundreds of other CA parents who are also concerned about recent changes to school materials.
The mothers argued to Fox News that CA was unjustly punishing their children for their parents’ activism. School officials, however, maintain that the two moms’ conduct blocked the type of “positive and constructive working relationship” they agreed to in the enrollment agreement they signed.
The letters show Columbus Academy leaders alleging that moms had “pursued a course of action that has been anything but civil, respectful and faithful to the facts.”
“Instead,” they add, “you have engaged in a campaign against Columbus Academy through a sustained, and increasingly inflammatory, series of false and misleading attacks on the School and its leadership.”
“Your actions caused pain, and even fear for physical safety, among students, families, faculty, and staff,” said CA Head of School Melissa Soderberg and Board of Trustees President Jonathan Kass.
It’s unclear what all the incidents the school was referring to, but Kass and Soderberg alluded to several examples, including a purported attempt to redirect donations and withhold tuition from the school – an accusation that Gross and Gonzalez deny.
The letter reads: “You have taken steps to explore how you, and with your encouragement, others, could withhold tuition payments and place them in escrow until your demands are met. You have also discussed pursuing charitable entity status for your organization, in the stated hope of persuading Columbus Academy donors to re-direct their contributions to your organization where you could use the funds as leverage to pursue your agenda.”
A spokesperson for CA declined to comment on specific cases, but more generally restated the school’s position on “attacks” leveled by parents.
“Columbus Academy does not comment on the circumstances of any student or family. However, any parent who waged a public campaign of false and misleading statements and inflammatory attacks harmful to the employees, the reputation, or the financial stability of Columbus Academy would be in clear violation of the Enrollment Agreement and would be denied re-enrollment for the following school year,” the spokesperson said.
During an episode of the “Blunt Force Truth” podcast in April, Gonzalez and Gross had entertained the idea of withholding payments after suggestions from the podcast’s hosts.
“These people on the left are just like everybody else on the left. You can’t reason with them. You can’t deal with them. The only thing you can do is defeat them,” the host said. Gross appeared to say, “We’re trying.”
At another point, host Mark Young said: “You have 400 families or 400 parents that are in your group – has anyone ever thought of the idea of escrowing all of your payments into an escrow account en masse until you get accountability and get answers?”
Gross replied: “No, that’s a good idea.”
Gonzalez also seemed to go along with Young’s and co-host’s Chuck Woolery’s suggestions that they target individual employees rather than the school as a whole – something Gonzalez likened to tactics used by left-wing radical Saul Alinsky.
The following is a transcript of their exchange:
Young: “So, who on this school board owns business, who in this school board holds a position that could be brought pressure on? Who amongst these people, including the teachers, could you start to file some type of ethnic intimidation criminal charges against? If it was me, I would be raining down terror …”
Gonzalez: “Well, I believe that’s what also Saul Alinsky – correct? Because it’s a lot easier to go for an individual than an institution.”
Woolery: “Exactly, you have to isolate them just like you said.”
Gonzalez: “It’s harder to make an institution hurt as opposed to an individual.”
Young: “That’s exactly what I’m saying to you.”
Young: “This is Saul Alinsky that I’m talking about. How do we divide them? How do we make them fight amongst each other? How do we turn the attack personal? How do we go after them on an individual basis? How do we cut off their money because that’s how they’re going to collapse and that will collapse them faster than a lawsuit because if just in a blanket lawsuit against the school, the school is going to pay for it, it’s going to be your tuition that’s going to pay …. no one’s going to dig in their own pocket if you sue the institution.”
Gross, at one point, also suggested Pro-CA Coalition was a throwback to Alinsky: “If you’re not for us, you’re against us.”
Gross distanced herself from Alinsky, suggesting she tried understanding his tactics in order to understand the school’s actions.
“Saul Alinsky was an American community activist whose ideologies are firmly based in Marxism,” she said in a statement to Fox News. “Unfortunately, we noticed a large number of parents telling us that after going to school leadership to address concerns, the school responded by making each family feel isolated, marginalized and intimidated. These are the tactics of Alinsky.
“We believe that in order to most effectively communicate, we must understand others’ ideas and opinions. Any review of Saul Alinsky was in an attempt to better understand and communicate with the school and school leadership.”
The two moms told Fox News the school’s tuition-related accusations were likely also referring to a May 19 Zoom call but maintained that they never proceeded with any formal implementation.
Two other CA parents who also belong to Pro-CA coalition told Fox News the idea was mentioned as a form of brainstorming rather than a formal proposal. “[I]t was nothing that we had organized or coerced anybody to do — and in fact I completely forgot about it,” said one parent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Another wrote via email: “The idea of withholding further donations to the school was posed as a question, and was asked what the groups thoughts were regarding the idea.”
CA’s letters also accused Gross and Gonzalez of using a “sham” video and making false claims about bomb-sniffing dogs at the school. “Among other things, no bomb sniffing dogs were brought to campus – the Gahanna Police Department does not even have dogs, bomb sniffing or otherwise – and there were never police cars with flashing lights,” the letter to Gross reads.
Gross and Gonzalez maintain, however, that it wasn’t the local police that were on campus and it’s unclear who was. As part of the mothers’ ongoing campaign, they say they’ve collected a number of sworn affidavits testifying to incidents at the school.
One of those is a joint affidavit between a father, who wishes to remain anonymous, and his son, whose name is redacted from the copy obtained by Fox News. It appears to corroborate the allegation that some type of officer was on the CA campus with a dog.
It reads: “During the week of April 12, 2021, I was told by several Columbus Academy parents, students reported bomb sniffing dogs on the Columbus Academy campus during school hours. When asked, my son confirmed seeing a ‘police type dog with a handler outside of the cafeteria.’ My son was unable to tell me what type of officer was handling the dog as he indicated he ‘was not paying close attention to the type of officer.’”
Still, CA spokesman Dan Williamson told Fox News: “No police dogs – from the local police department or any other law enforcement agency – were on the Columbus Academy campus.”
“I can categorically tell you that none were requested by Columbus Academy,” he added.
Columbus Academy reflects a national trend: Division created by racial, politicized content
Gross and Gonzalez’s battle is one that’s being fought by many parents across the U.S. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, parents have reported being blindsided by racial content and encountering road blocks while seeking accountability from administrators.
The changes are especially personal for Gross and Gonzalez, who say their children have been attending CA since they were little. Not only did Gross’ husband graduate from CA in the ’80s, her daughter was also about to enter her junior year when the school declined reenrollment.
“My whole family loves Columbus Academy,” said Gross’ husband, Michael, in a statement to Fox News.
“My years there and the school’s focus on academic excellence really shaped who I am today. My closest friends are my classmates from Columbus Academy. Unfortunately, in the last few years, I have witnessed the school shift the focus from academic excellence and stray from their ‘quest for the best’ to one of intolerance and divisiveness. It is sad to watch the school lose its way because it is a great institution with 110 years of outstanding history.”
Schools like CA have generally defended so-called “anti-racist” or equity-focused content as ways to enhance inclusion among students. However, parents’ complaints and school materials often reveal highly controversial content that critics say causes even more division.
The Pro-CA Coalition has collected a series of signed affidavits attesting to not only left-leaning ideas about race, but anti-conservative bias among faculty as well.
One reads: “As loyal Columbus Academy (CA) community members for the past 11 years, we feel obligated to share recent experiences that concern us as they demonstrate a shift away from an inclusive, safe and positive learning environment toward a politically charged, polarized one.”
“What we are witnessing,” adds the affidavit with a redacted author, “is not in alignment with the nurturing school we have known for so long; indeed the emotional impact on our child compels us to communicate.” It goes on to claim that the signatory’s child “has learned not to share his opinion.” It claims that the “recent overarching political tone has left him feeling depressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, and silenced.”
When Gross and Gonzalez met with the school earlier this year, they presented a long list of purported incidents but claim they didn’t receive an adequate response.
In a lengthy statement sent to Fox News, Williamson described CA’s handling of the issue.
“In early February, we received a letter from two members of our school community who said they represented a larger coalition of parents with concerns about Columbus Academy,” he said.
“Through their letter and a virtual meeting with school leadership, the two parents shared a list of specific grievances. This list included a combination of concerns, some of which had been previously raised by parents and addressed by the school as well as some that had not been brought to the school’s attention before. Regardless of which category these grievances fell into, Columbus Academy leadership reviewed each and every concern and reported its findings on them to the Board of Trustees.
“As a result of this process, the administration and the board identified four areas in which the school can improve in order to continue the positive evolution of its mission and values.”
They included: “Reinforcing the principle that diverse opinions are to be welcomed and respectfully expressed in the classroom”; “[e]nsuring that the discussion of political issues in classroom settings is done in a way that encourages diverse points of view and is appropriate for different grade levels”; “[i]mproving student-to-student interactions both in person and online in order to reduce, and ideally eliminate, incendiary and accusatory behavior” and “[r]evisiting how Columbus Academy structures learning support in each division in accordance with our mission, values, and Strategic Vision.”
Fox News’ Teny Sahakian contributed to this report.
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