By Jerald Allan Cartwright
The injection of radical, politically charged, and often inappropriate content into the American education system has been well-documented in conservative media. Reports of critical race theory and sexually explicit material in grade school curricula have become so common that they are, sadly, almost no longer newsworthy. Though alarming, these stories are typically relegated to large, urban school districts in progressive neighborhoods, such as Los Angeles Unified School District, Loudoun County (VA) Public Schools, and New York City. However, any illusion that far-left curricula are limited to far-left school districts was shattered when Daren Cusato, a high school biology and anatomy teacher from South Side Area School District (SSASD) in Hookstown, Pennsylvania was suspended for refusing to refer to his students by “preferred pronouns.”
Hookstown is not Seattle, New York, or even Loudoun County, Virginia. The rural SSASD serves a community of roughly 7,000 residents, with a total student body (K-12) under 1000 students. Nor is the district particularly diverse – over 97% of the students are white. A Google search of the community provides little information other than the Hookstown Fair website and a local news report on an annual ‘Tractor Day’ tradition, in which students drive tractors around the school in honor of the community’s rural roots. Moreover, the district leans heavily to the right. In 2020, for example, the five voting areas under the SSASD overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump 74.9% to 25.1%. In summary, this small, rural and extraordinarily conservative school district is the absolute last place one would expect radical gender theory to rear its ugly head. Instead, a debate over ‘preferred pronouns’ nearly cost a beloved teacher his job.
Daren Cusato was a successful biology and anatomy teacher at SSASD for over 30 years, having been selected as a semi-finalist for the 2013 Teacher of the Year Award. His affection for his district and community were apparent in a 2018 interview with Crossing Paths Television Ministry, in which he gushed “We have a fantastic situation [at SSASD]…it’s a really nice community, Hookstown area is a very nice community, I get some many positive remarks from, you know, parents,” as he discussed the influence of his Christian faith on career path. None of this mattered, however, when the district mandated that teachers call students by their preferred pronouns.
Cusato refused on the grounds of his Christian faith and his scientific background as both an anatomy and biology teacher. According to a Facebook post from his aunt, “Although [Daren Cusato] loves the students, he will not encouraged [sic] their confusion as a Christian or a bio teacher. He stated his reasoning, referencing Bible verses, as well as declaring the infringement on his first amendment rights. The response was a letter of notice that he inappropriately communicated with district staff. He was placed on administrative leave and is not permitted to communicate with ANYONE in the district.”
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, at least for now. The student body rallied to Cusato’s defense, protesting for his immediate reinstatement and the wishes of the community won out. During an Oct. 5 school board meeting to determine Cusato’s fate, over 400 students, parents, and community members packed the school’s auditorium. The marathon 3-hour session featured over 40 speakers, the vast majority of whom vehemently supported Cusato. In the face of overwhelming public pressure, the school board held a special vote to reinstate Cusato and suspend the policy, which will be re-written at a future meeting. It remains to be seen whether the new policy will align with Cusato’s (and the community’s) beliefs.
Although Cusato has been reinstated, his suspension for the great “sin” of teaching anatomy and physiology, should be a major wake-up call for red-state parents around the country. Blue-state schools have attempted to hide students’ gender transitions from parents, even establishing ‘Transition Closets’ where students can swap out their clothes without parental knowledge. Parents have been jailed for ‘misgendering’ their children, and in some cases have lost custody entirely. Evidence that at least some cases of modern gender dysphoria are due to social pressures have been suppressed, as have books that question the concept of transgenderism. The long-term impact of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones has not been well-studied; multiple detransitioners have expressed concern for their future health due to impacts from surgeries and hormone injections. In other words, the left is pushing children into making life-altering decisions without any parental input, and this should terrify families across the country.
Conservative parents might think that their rural communities are safe from this ideology. But these issues are no longer limited to far-left San Francisco – they are rapidly invading so-called ‘fly over country’ and will come to your town sooner rather than later. Don’t expect the medical or scientific communities to intervene, either – they have a $5 billion incentive to transition as many children as possible.
Parents — not the state — are the best bulwark against this ideology. As school board meetings at SSASD and Loudoun County have shown, community engagement coupled with voting is crucial. Just ask outraged parents in Virginia who helped elect Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA). Since taking office, Gov. Youngkin has been a staunch advocate for parental rights in the classroom. Leaders, regardless of party, who allow radical gender theory to run unrestrained in America’s classrooms must be held accountable at the ballot box.
Of course, most schools pass transgender policies to protect the district from lawsuits. But, as one SSASD parent argued, they cannot be afraid of legal fights – even against the well-funded transgender lobby and FBI/DOJ intimidation: “We shouldn’t be afraid of being sued. Fine. If you want to sue us, sue us. Let’s take it to the Supreme Court. Let’s take it all the way.”
If all else fails, conservatives must do more to promote accessible, affordable private schools and/or homeschooling as alternatives to public schools, where community and religious values can be taught away from the heavy hand of the US Department of Education. Let Daren Cusato’s story be a warning for parents that ignoring radical gender theory as a blue-city problem will only allow it to spread – to the cost of our communities and students.
J. Allen Cartwright writes about the interplay of politics with cultural and scientific institutions. His work has appeared in Human Events, The Federalist, Areo Magazine and others. He can be followed on Parler at @jallencartwright.