Skip to main content

Closing Young Minds

City Journal

May 1, 2023

Roger Brooks describes himself as a “loyal supporter” of Durham Academy. A member of the class of 1980, he has donated money every year to support the 1,200-student North Carolina private school. His father was chairman of the board of trustees in the 1970s. When he left New York to move back to his hometown six years ago, he enrolled his two youngest children and joined the board. So it came as a surprise when Brooks was fired from the board earlier this year in the middle of his second term—because his presence made some faculty members feel “less safe.”

The problem, according to an anonymous letter sent to the board last year and claiming to represent dozens of teachers, was that Brooks is a lawyer for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a pro bono Christian legal-advocacy group that has argued in favor of bans on transgendered men competing in women’s sports and against forcing bakers to make cakes for gay weddings. By including Brooks on the board, the letter stated, school leaders “made the calculation that the lives, health and wellbeing of the queer community are ancillary and insignificant.” The group demanded that Brooks be removed and censured, and that the board apologize “to the entire DA community for a failure to do its due diligence to provide a safe and respectful community through the appointment and renewal of Roger Brooks.”

Brooks spent most of his professional life as a commercial litigator in New York but decided to join ADF a few years ago as a second career. The group, which has argued cases before the Supreme Court, has also opposed bans on “conversion therapy” as a violation of free speech. The teachers’ letter notes that such advocacy “does not exist in a vacuum” and cites bullying, workplace discrimination, and high suicide rates as allegedly direct results of ADF’s positions.

After some back and forth with Brooks, the school caved to the anonymous letter campaign. A letter from the board chair, Edwin Poston, noted that its members “did not take issue with the trustee’s personally held beliefs” but objected because the legal positions taken by ADF “took a stand against treasured members of the community.” This inability to distinguish between legal arguments and personal attacks is one of the hallmarks of the modern progressive agenda.

“Our commitment to tolerance and inclusion compels us to respect the disparate views, beliefs and philosophies of our community members while promoting a safe environment for all,” Poston emphasized. Of course, if safety means never hearing any views with which one disagrees, it’s hard to imagine how the commitment to tolerance and inclusion could be upheld in a meaningful way. Poston’s letter refers to the school’s mission “to prepare students for life,” but nowhere does it explain how shielding students from different viewpoints will serve that goal. Despite Brooks’s ouster, Poston went on to note that “trustees, families, faculty, staff and students of all ideologies, identities, and backgrounds are represented and welcomed at Durham Academy.” The school has a strange way of showing it.

The faculty letter, which Brooks describes as “standard issue cancel-culture script,” has saddened him. Durham Academy has always leaned left, Brooks acknowledges. “When I was there, it was a university community”—many students are children of faculty members at the local colleges—“and therefore as a Christian conservative, I was part of an ideological minority.” But “that was never a problem,” he says. “The teachers tended to be liberal, but not uniformly. One could have a discussion about these things. I left loving the school.”

In recent years, though, Durham Academy has followed the path of private schools in New York, Washington, and other cities where progressives dominate. One Durham family was discouraged from returning in the fall because the parents publicly objected to elementary school children being segregated into racial affinity groups. According to students I spoke with, during a mandatory school assembly, students were told that requiring transgender athletes to play on teams matching their biological sex would kill people. During another, students were asked to sign an inclusive-language pledge covering speech both on and off campus. Upper School physics and chemistry examinations recently added graded sections in which students were asked to reflect on their racial and gender identities. After Brooks released his resignation letter, students received an email from the Upper School Director instructing them to “decline any interviews if approached by the media.”

On the one hand, private schools are supposed to be more accountable to parents because parents pay tuition. On the other, parents and students are concerned about the ways in which faculty and administrators can affect children’s prospects for future schooling and careers if families object to school policy. Parents of a family at another North Carolina private school, Charlotte Latin, are suing the school for breach of contract. They claim that their children were summarily expelled from the institution after they joined a group of parents complaining about students reading “pornographic” poems regarding transgenderism and homosexuality, students being asked for their preferred pronouns, and the school’s decision to become an “anti-racist academic institution.”

Brooks’s youngest child is graduating this spring; he hopes that parents at Durham Academy and elsewhere will “push back against trends encouraging an intellectual monoculture and insist on excellence in education.” He says, “my story with the school is done.” He hopes things will be “better for the next generation.”

About the Author

Naomi Schaefer Riley