THE BIG TALK
An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
Picking fights with lawyers and Green Berets can be a bit risky, and that is doubly true when one of them has extensive experience with totalitarian tactics.
Gordana Schifanelli is a lawyer married to a former Army special forces officer, and what’s more, she grew up in a Communist household in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. All of which makes for a powerful opponent in what has shaped up as a battle on Maryland’s Eastern Shore between forces of wokeness in Queen Anne’s County Public Schools and some concerned parents.
“It’s totalitarian, what they’re doing, so I know it,” she said. “I was in the middle of a NATO bombing and barely survived. Now you want to tell me I’m a racist? Whatever.”
The battle began in June, when Superintendent Andrea M. Kane sent a letter to parents filled with attaboys for environmental improvements in the schools and news about the coronavirus, which had forced them all to close. Sandwiched in between, however, was a lengthy screed about systemic racism, the righteousness of Black Lives Matter and the frightening news that the schools in that sleepy community were infested with racism.
While Ms. Kane, who is Black, voiced her concerns in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Mrs. Schifanelli was appalled on many levels. For starters, who might be responsible for this terrible environment?
“Who’s racist? Where is this racism in our schools? I’m sending my kids into some rampant, festering racist place?” she said. “I think Black parents would also want to know who is being racist at school.”
In addition, Mrs. Schifanelli objected to the lecture from a government worker who she believed should be focused on educating her children rather than broader social issues that her 11-year-old didn’t really understand.
“You shouldn’t be using your microphone to promote your partisan political position as a public employee,” she said. “My kid’s 11. You want to regurgitate a particular political view about police and how they deal with criminal defendants and use my kids as your social justice warriors? The hell you will.”
Mrs. Schifanelli was also uncomfortable with Ms. Kane bringing in an activist group, Students Talking About Race, that tries to “encourage uncomfortable conversations and activism,” to instruct students. After a July session with the group raised some parents’ ire, the arrangement was quietly dropped, she said.
But just as she had once found her unwillingness to join the Communist Party an unwelcome stance in her childhood home, she now found her desire for a nonpolitical classroom and social justice-charged administration unwelcome among the powers that be in Queen Anne’s County, whose population is about 90% White and 7% Black, according to census data.
“I wrote and called everyone saying I thought this was wrong,” Mrs. Schifanelli told The Washington Times. “And everyone told me, ‘they have First Amendment rights; goodbye.’”
It occurred to Mrs. Schifanelli that perhaps she was wrong, or at least alone in her opposition to the trends prevalent among school administrators and county officials. So she voiced her opinion on Facebook and Instagram, where she learned she was far from alone.
Her pages, Kent Island Patriots and Maryland Patriots, attracted thousands of hits. They also attracted enemies who used every tool they could to silence and smear her and others, according to lawsuits Mrs. Schifanelli and others filed that now appear headed toward a jury trial.
“I wanted to create a space where whoever wants to speak freely against using kids as social justice warriors could do so,” she said. “That moment became hell.”
The response from Big Tech and leftists in her community would have made Tito proud, Mrs. Schifanelli said referring to Josip Broz, the late dictator of Yugoslavia.
First they shut down her personal Facebook page.
“So I said, ‘OK, I’ll create my own,” she said. Facebook and Instagram shut down the “Kent Island Patriots” and “Maryland Eastern Shore Patriots” pages, too. When her 17-year-old son tried to start a Facebook page, he was blocked, she said.
The people seeking to censor Mrs. Schifanelli’s opposition to left-wing politics, many of whom did not have children in the public school system, attacked her as a racist. They leveled their accusations with the Maryland Bar Association and at the U.S. Naval Academy, where she teaches economics and law twice a week.
Another target of theirs did lose his job, and he is a plaintiff in a separate lawsuit.
“They said, ‘we’re going to get her,’ and they started recruiting zealots to go after me,” she said. “What on earth is wrong with these people? You don’t go after people’s livelihoods.”
The situation is one she considered impossible in the United States, a country she said she looked up to even before she met Marc Schifanelli when he was attached to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade as a civilian contractor.
The pair fell in love, and theirs proved a war-torn romance. Forced to leave Yugoslavia when the war there was raging, Mr. Schifanelli refused to return stateside without her and thus decamped to Hungary. Eventually, on foot and by bus, Gordana made it across the border and then they got married in Cyprus.
“My parents were party members, they were true believers,” she said. “I remember when the Communist Party would do recruitment drives in high school. I didn’t want to be a member in any ‘party.’ God, they’d have all these meetings.”
But Mrs. Schifanelli’s aversion to politics changed when she found herself under attack. She decided to change the school board and went looking for candidates. She found one right at home.
“I told Marc we’re going to clean this mess up we’re having in public schools,” she said. “He looked at me. ‘Me?’ he said. ‘Politics?’”
Mrs. Schifanelli also recruited Helen Bennett, a local pet store owner, but the newfound political group learned they were too late to get on the ballot. With social media outfits blacking her out, they were reduced to sending thousands of postcards and ran as write-ins. They both won handily, while Dick Smith, an incumbent school board member also skeptical of Ms. Kane’s program, cruised to reelection, giving the reformers a majority on the five-person board.
By that time, tensions had mounted. Ms. Kane disappeared beginning in late October, later claiming illness, and Mrs. Schifanelli said her efforts to uncover racist teaching or incidents in the schools turned up nothing.
“As of today, I have not received one piece of paper, one shred of evidence that anyone has been racist in our public schools,” she told The Washington Times.
Neither the new board nor Ms. Kane expressed any desire to continue their relationship, and in January the board began looking for a new superintendent. That person is expected to take over before the next school year begins, Mrs. Schifanelli said.
Meanwhile, the defendants in her civil actions have tried, unsuccessfully, to get the lawsuits filed by Mrs. Schifanelli and others thrown out or moved to federal court.
Mrs. Schifanelli says she has no interest in a settlement because she doesn’t want any money. Rather, the goal is to show publicly that the schools are not a hotbed of racism and to reveal the organized way those saying that the schools are have targeted her and others for cancellation.
“They are targeting individuals and parents who speak against a particular political point of view; we are suing a government that organizes to shut people up,” she said. “I’m hoping this can be a message to a lot of people that we will never allow any more of this type of thing.”
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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