This story was co-published by ProPublica and FRONTLINE as part of an ongoing collaboration.
Cecelia Lewis did not want to share her story.
In fact, she just wanted all of this to go away.
Late last year, I was on the phone with a former colleague, talking about the local coverage of campaigns against critical race theory across metro Atlanta. CRT maintains that racial bias is embedded in America’s laws and institutions and has caused disproportionate harm to people of color; it’s rarely taught in K-12 public school systems but has still become a lightning rod in districts around the country — and a catalyst for conservative political candidates seeking to fire up their base.
He mentioned that a woman had quit her job in the Cherokee County School District before she had started and wondered what had happened to her.
We talked about a lengthy statement she’d written for the Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News, explaining her decision to resign. The letter was published a week and a half after an ugly scene at a school board meeting during which parents railed against the hiring of Lewis (a Maryland middle school principal), as well as diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives (which Lewis had been brought on to helm) and CRT (a formerly arcane, currently politicized concept that Lewis hadn’t even heard of). I later learned people who had gathered outside the building where the meeting was held were beating on windows. School police and other law enforcement officers escorted board members to their homes, where some received ongoing security.
In that letter, Lewis, who had quit the morning after the meeting, explained the DEI plan she would have implemented in Cherokee and how it would benefit all children. And she mentioned she’d been threatened by people who have no idea who she is and what she stands for.
Seemed like something worth deeper reporting.
A comment posted at the bottom of a Cobb County Courier article caught my eye: A reader, who didn’t reveal their identity, warned that Lewis was heading to Cherokee’s neighboring Cobb County School District.
Sure enough, Lewis’ LinkedIn profile showed that she’d worked in Cobb County for a mere two months following her resignation in Cherokee. She had been overseeing social studies for that district. No one had reported on what happened to her in Cobb.
At the same time, I’d been filing open records requests to the Cobb County School District related to COVID-19. I noticed a cache of emails that showed how the then-school board chairman was receiving guidance from a local attorney about conservatives’ definition of CRT, its supposed dangers to children and how the concept was infiltrating corporations and schools.
The school board — like many others across the country in 2021 — had taken a vote against CRT. The vote was the same month that Lewis started working there.
I wanted to know exactly what happened to Lewis in both districts and how it went down. I also wanted to know who was behind the how.
I started contacting Lewis via LinkedIn in December, shortly after talking to my former colleague and trying to connect the dots between what little I knew about her brief time in Georgia. She didn’t write back. But I had some hope that I’d hear from her because I received alerts that she was at least looking at my LinkedIn profile.
She’s considering it, I thought.
Earlier this year, I found her email address and followed up. Still no answer.
I continued filing records requests in the two school districts and, through emails I received from those requests, learned more about the players behind the campaign to run her out. In both Cobb and Cherokee, people had sent similarly worded complaints to the districts, demanding to get rid of Lewis.
Then I found people who were upset about what happened to Lewis. One of them knew a good bit more about what led up to that ugly school board meeting in Cherokee.
That person had a recording of an organizing meeting days prior in a golf course clubhouse. There was also a private Facebook group filled with hysterical posts about Lewis, including some that announced false Lewis “sightings” around the county.
Two of the presenters at the clubhouse meeting are leaders of groups that encourage the public to anonymously report educators for perceived transgressions relating to curriculums, inappropriate books or lessons, or guest speakers — or to just submit any anonymous tip.
Beyond giving me details about the efforts to oust Lewis, the recording and posts provided insight into local and national conservative networks involved in strategies to overthrow school boards, vilify Parent Teacher Associations and pass state legislation to ban a slew of concepts from curriculums. At the clubhouse meeting, the crowd watched a video from Prager University that outlined how white people are being made out to be racists no matter what they say or do — because, well, CRT. They also listened to a controversial recording of a Manhattan high school principal caught on tape talking about the demonization of white children. The group was being coached on how to speak at school board meetings in a way that could land them an appearance on Fox News.
This all struck me as highly coordinated.
By March, I decided to see if meeting me might change Lewis’ mind about talking. I knew she had moved back to Maryland, so I traveled there to do some old-fashioned door-knocking, meet some folks who knew Lewis and get a direct, handwritten message to her (my ProPublica business cards hadn’t been printed yet!).
While I was sitting in my hotel room, she called.
She still didn’t want to go on the record, but we talked for hours that day and hours the next. I told her why I wanted to tell her story, and she began to piece it together for me. I learned that she hadn’t even initially applied for that DEI position. Cherokee’s district leadership encouraged her to do it after she interviewed for a job as a coach for teachers. But Lewis still would not go on the record, and she wasn’t too interested in meeting me. She had concerns. Safety and privacy concerns.
My ears perked up when, during our initial call, she mentioned an upcoming school board meeting in her own district. I decided to go sit in the back, to get a feel for the area. I heard some of the same anti-CRT lines in Maryland that I’d heard in Georgia. This time it tied back to the district’s hiring of its first Black superintendent.
Again, the language suggested there was coordination. People don’t learn these things on their own. They’re coached in the ways I’d heard in that recording of the Cherokee County clubhouse meeting.
I left Maryland without an interview I could use in my story. But I kept reporting.
I got more emails from the Georgia districts. I spoke to school employees in Cherokee and Cobb counties; they defended Lewis and felt sorry these things happened to her. Most of them said they thought of her often. One, who was disappointed I’d tried to visit Lewis, thinking it was a step too far, was especially protective of her. She didn’t want me to cause her further harm, and I had no interest in doing that.
I also attended a Cherokee County School Board meeting, standing in a long line waiting to get through the metal detectors that had been installed because of the uproar over Lewis and CRT a year earlier. In that line, women were passing around what they called evidence of lewd material in school library books. There was an informal circle of people forming around me. Some knew one another. Some were introducing themselves, knowing they shared a common goal in book banning. One woman declared that a parent leader was a “Marjorie,” as in a follower of controversial Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is not afraid to say anything, anywhere. Another raised her hand and proudly said, “I’m a Marjorie, too.”
Everyone in my immediate vicinity was passing around material provided by a blond woman: laminated pages of books she felt should be banned from school libraries. Well, almost everyone. No one handed them to me. Nor did anyone hand them to the Black mother standing behind me with her high school daughter.
As I continued reporting in the weeks to come, it became apparent that none of the blowback Cecelia Lewis faced in Georgia was actually about Cecelia Lewis. She happened to land in the wrong job in the wrong state at the wrong time. And yes, based on the details you’ll find in the story I ultimately wrote, the wrong skin color.
(In response to a detailed list of questions covering all aspects of Lewis’ experience in the Cherokee County School District, its chief communications officer responded that “we have no further comments to add.” In response to similar questions to the Cobb County School District and its school board, a spokesperson responded: “Cecelia Lewis was employed by the Cobb County School District during the summer of 2021, voluntarily submitted her letter of resignation in early fall of 2021, and like every Team member, her contributions and work for students was greatly appreciated.”)
In late April, Lewis agreed to take another call from me, this time via Zoom, where we could actually see each other for the first time. By then, we were inching toward the year anniversary of her resignation from Cherokee County. When I told her what I’d learned through records and interviews — and how my colleague, ProPublica research reporter Mollie Simon, found examples of educators across the country who faced similar backlash — she said she’d consult her family, her district and her pastor and pray on making a decision as to whether she’d talk to me on the record.
A few days later, my phone lit up with a call from her. She wanted to share her experience — so that it may help people understand the extraordinary challenges so many educators are facing.