For people reading Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Doherty’s January 17th blog post, a sentence at the end of the post might catch your attention.
“Recently, you may have received an email from john doherty <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
I would like to make it clear that this email did not come from me, nor is this email or the website affiliated with the Reading Public Schools. We cannot guarantee if the contents of this email is safe to open,” stated Doherty in the blog post.
If you’re like this writer, that sentence could send you down a rabbit-hole of Pathways blog posts, emails to the School Committee and RPS staff, and, finally, a now deactivated website.
The email address was associated with an anonymously run website, which has since removed all of its content and currently only bears the text “Thanks for visiting. The site has been deactivated. 10867.” So what was on this mysterious website? Well, that depends on when you looked at it.
In a January 15th Pathways blog post that addressed recent events in both the country and community, Doherty described the website in the following manner:
“This week, an anonymous website called Fix Reading Schools was put online. This website denounced the role of the schools in teaching social justice issues and unfairly criticizes the work that our teachers and Principals have done in this area,” stated Doherty.
In addition to the website, Doherty stated that some staff members in both Reading Public Schools and RPS’s central office had received anonymous phone calls regarding RPS’s handling of these topics, making the staff feel unsafe.
“Ultimately, all our students are being impacted, particularly the families of police officers and students of color. The children of police officers cannot feel alienated from our schools. Our students of color must feel like their voices are being heard. Divisive and harassing behaviors are not acceptable in our community and in our classrooms and do not allow us to have the difficult conversations and hear all perspectives, which is critical in times like this,” stated Doherty in the blog post.
How did we get here? It all started with a video link that was distributed to staff and parents of Killam Elementary and Birch Meadow. The link was sent out on January 7, along with several other resources that were meant to provide guidance on how to lead family conversations regarding the recent violence in Washington D.C.
“The purpose of these resources was to give parents and teachers options on how to focus the conversations from supporting our students to feel safe, to looking at the event through a civics perspective and a social justice perspective. Our teachers did not share these resources with students. The resources that were shared with parents were not meant to promote a particular political view nor to denigrate the work that our police department or other departments do to keep our schools and community safe,” stated Doherty in the blog post.
The video link in question is titled “Woke Kindergarten 60 Second Text: Spot the Difference” and asks the audience to “spot the difference” between a series of images. The video screen is divided into two sections: one featuring a photo from one of the several Black Lives Matter protests from over the summer, the other featuring a photo of the January 6 US Capital riot. The difference between the vast majority of the images is the police reaction to the protestors.
Doherty has since apologized for the inclusion of the “Woke Kindergarten” clip.
“[The video] should not have been shared due to some of the violent nature of some of the photos and the perceived role that police play. I take full responsibility for this, and I need to do a better job of vetting resources prior to them being shared with staff. I truly apologize to those individuals who were impacted by the content of what was sent out,” stated Doherty.
What followed the resource was a barrage of angry emails to the School Committee and Dr. John Doherty from aggrieved parents, who accused the district of sending out political propaganda. The letters varied from mild irritation to a threat of legal action against the district.
According to research based on the site’s domain name, the website was created at 1:45 am on January 11, just four days after the Woke Kindergarten clip was sent out to staff and parents. However, the vast majority of its content has since been removed. On January 13, a letter to the School Committee and Doherty shed some light on what the website initially showed.
“It bears the message, ‘Extreme Political Activists Are Creating an Unsafe Learning Environment & Hostile Work Environment.’ Most of the rest of the site’s content has been removed since I drafted this letter, but the site had gone on to make incredibly vague claims about ‘brainwashing’ and ‘political extremists [having] unchecked influence’ in our schools. It solicits readers to join a mailing list to help deal with concerns, but none of the messaging on the main page made clear any details of the complaint(s). It said there will be a ‘records vault of evidence,’ but there is none yet posted. They stated they are looking for local lawyers
to help with their ‘litigation research.’ Also, there are no names associated with the site. All we have is an anonymous, fear-mongering website with an ominous, us-vs.-them tone making vague, emotional accusations to scare parents,” stated the letter.
Users were then prompted to join the site’s mailing list, which would deliver the emails under the sender address of “john doherty.” The site has since removed this function and now has a sender address that says “Anti Bias.” The automated email for the site says that they will no longer be sending out newsletters.
The site has changed several times since it was created, often reflecting growing community backlash against its more harsh tactics. Currently, the only text that the website bears says that the site has been deactivated.
In response to the website, Reading residents Kaitlyn Mercurio, Julie Ross, Michele Sanphy, and Theresa Wiggins created a Google Form where residents can sign their names to voice their support for RPS teachers as well as their commitment to “model appropriate ways to resolve conflict because we know our children are watching.” The residents will deliver the public statement to the School Committee, Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Doherty, and the principals of all schools within RPS.