The Killingly board of education meeting in April. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

It is a stunning juxtaposition: every two weeks courageous, fresh-faced teenagers make their way to the podium on the second floor of the Killingly Town Hall to plead for mental health services for the high school while Republican school board members stare blankly into the middle distance. 

The stories these students tell, of the effect mental illness has had on themselves and on their friends, are heart-wrenching and difficult to listen to, which makes the utter lack of concern or empathy from those who voted against a school-based health center profoundly jarring.

In a normal world, 16- and 17-year-old students telling these heartfelt and deeply moving stories would elicit some sign of interest or concern from every school board member. The school board is, after all, charged with maintaining the effectiveness and quality of the educational experience of the Killingly school system.

But this is not a normal, or even a minimally humane, world. This is the world of the radical right, where nothing makes a great deal of sense. This is a world where there is an expressed concern for the individual and individual rights — but only for some individuals and some individual rights. 

This is a world where congressional Republicans are afraid to vote for even minimal gun restrictions — background checks, age limits, assault weapons bans — because the radical right would destroy their careers. The rights of schoolchildren and teachers, of grandparents Saturday shopping at a local market not to be gunned down in senseless slaughter? Well, that takes a back seat to the right of the individual to have as many weapons as he wishes, including those designed to serve no purpose other than waging war. 

This is a world in which a search for historical truth takes a back seat to the needs of a national myth. Instead of bravely coming to grips with the terrible reality of our history of slavery, we must, depending on where we live, decide whether slavery was either a terrible moral mistake with lessons for our country going forward, or a really bad thing with isolated bright spots, or a sorta bad thing with a silver lining, or not nearly as bad as people say (“there were lots of kind masters and anyway it was a long time ago”).

If you think that a careful, intellectual search for the truth is good in general and good for students, then you will need to contend with the radical right’s Critical Race Theory obsession (not that they understand what CRT is). 

This a world in which the radical right argues that the freedom to not wear a mask or get a vaccine trumps the right of innocent people not to get a deadly disease (“My body, my choice”). But it is also a world where a bunch of old men can tell a woman she is guilty of murder for having an abortion (“Your body, my choice?”)

It is a world where non-partisan election officials are replaced by Stop the Steal election officials; it is a world where some members of Congress say with a straight face about an insurrectionist mob that took over the Capitol in Washington: “It was a normal tour visit.”

It is also, unfortunately, a world where the Republicans on the Killingly school board do not really believe in public education. Reportedly hand-picked by some local Tea Party Patriots, these school board members have latched solidly onto the latest culture wars wedge issue: parental rights.

First articulated back in the 1920’s, the idea of “parental rights” was used to argue against the teaching of evolution and culminated in the famous Scopes Trial of 1925. It was also used around the same time by parents who wished to keep their children working on farms rather than going to school; the issues then were around child labor and the need for universal education in order for citizens to be participating members of a democracy.

The “parental rights” crowd was firmly in the “you should be able to keep your kid working on the farm” camp. Fortunately, despite this, child labor laws were passed in the 1930’s. Now, it is the radical right that would like to see, under the umbrella of “parental rights,” the abolishment of public education as we know it.

The Tea Party Patriot web site calls for the closing of “failing schools” and for taxpayer-funded education of the parents’ choosing, including religious schools and the like. Are these Killingly school board members literally starving the schools they are supposed to be running and improving? Are they using a very serious mental health issue to push a favored, deeply ideological agenda, at the expense of the students?

How else to explain the striking lack of educational experience or expertise of those Republicans on the School Board. How else to explain the pathological lack of interest in the stories these students tell every two weeks? How else to explain the presence on the Board of Education of someone who until very recently was Vice President of the Connecticut chapter of the American Guard, a confirmed white supremacist organization but who, oddly, has no particular experience or expertise that would qualify him for a place on the Board of Education (readers need only Google the name Jason Muscara)?

So, ultimately, to live in the world of the Republican members of the Killingly school board is to live in a world where the individual rights of these board members and their “right” to carry forth an agenda of erosion of our public education system completely eclipses the right of the students in that system to a safe and robust educational experience.

That students in today’s world, facing unparalleled stressors like school shootings, climate change, a horrible pandemic, and adults unwilling to let them begin to take responsibility for their own lives, might possibly need a sympathetic ear now and again should not come as a surprise.

That some members of the school board have effectively prevented them from accessing that sympathetic ear should also not come as a surprise. The radical right’s ability to turn every humane, common sense solution to a problem into an existential threat to the continued existence of their myth of an unblemished nation that can do no wrong knows no bounds.

It is the quintessential “reverse” King Midas’ touch —every attempt to move us forward, to make things better, is turned to dust. I will never understand it: why in the world do we again and again entrust our government and institutions to people who do not believe in government or those institutions?

John Day MD lives in Woodstock.